Six Photos in Search of a Story.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say.
Never let photos in the way of a good story, I say. Ask anyone who’d read Thubron or Robb, writers of books without so much of a picture, and ask them if they hadn’t seen the Banguê restaurant, or Mount Kailash. Good writing is as powerful as any set of Hasselblad lenses and, one would argue, a lot cheaper.
Why this post, then? Why Bible-thumping against photography and then stick one in that’s all about them?
Well, I’m neither a man of virtue nor a good writer.
A few days ago, I felt as if I’d said everything about my visit to Seoul; yet, I still had some photos. Much like those characters in a Pirandello’s play whose title I butchered for this post, they were in search of something. Pirandello’s characters were looking for an Author; my pictures, bless them, already had one – whether they wanted that one is another story – but what they were missing was a story.
I suppose I could’ve left them behind; somehow, though, I knew I couldn’t. Irrational as it might sound, I thought I owed them something. Then I decided, as so often I do, to part ways with my own convictions and let these pictures be the story. Here they come.
First night in Seoul. I was at last, after many false starts, on my way to the Noryangjin fish market: I had been on the cusp of leaving my hotel room for a good hour before it finally happened. Something – be it an email, or a document to check online – would pop up and distract me. As I eventually slipped in the lift, I started nagging my memory for the title of a book, written by Italo Calvino, where the protagonist – a reader – had the same issue I experienced: he wants to read a novel, but despite his best intentions he keeps on being sidetracked. By the time I was on the kerb my brain had spat out the answer. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. And, right at that moment, I saw the young couple walking into the cone of light of the kiosk, much like I’d imagined the traveller. Click.
Incheon, a rainy Sunday morning at the pompously-named International Business District. We’d seized on the chance of a pause in the procession of squalls of rain and gusts of wind that were lashing our hotel when – surprise surprise – it started again. Surprised by the downpour, a man used his puffer jacket as he walked towards his car. His sense of urgency didn’t seem to be mirrored by any of his, better insulated, companions.
Morning had barely passed the baton to afternoon and these four sprightly gents were well into what I assume was their first round of beers, sitting outside the neighbourhood Mini-Stop market. The way they were laughing, and the generous humour that I could feel, brought me back to Italy: everywhere in the North of the country, perhaps not outside a grocery store but in bars, their peers would be sitting and laughing hard as well, maybe with small glasses of white instead of beers. And a non-stop stream of profanity in dialect, of course.
In these days of Instagram, a number of enterprising ventures have popped up, in and around the historic district of Bukchon, offering the ultimate selfie experience to the social media crowd. For a – fairly substantial, I imagine – amount of won punters can be issued with traditional dresses to wear for the duration of their stroll around the Hanok village. But what happens when the Instagramming is done and all that remains is to sit down and marvel at the number of likes piling up? Well, one could do as these ladies and opt for eating fried fish balls at a shop embellished by two hand-drawn adverts featuring Maggie and Bart.
Bukchon village is peppered with signs – hanging from walls or held by yellow-clad volunteers – pleading visitors to keep quiet, for the sake of the locals. It felt all a bit over the top given the traditional politeness and respect that is the mainstay of this corner of Asia. Besides, even if I were inclined to indulge in some Mediterranean fracas, how could I not obey to the cutest admonition ever?
Yes, I said 6 photos and with these two we’d be at 7. But… which one would you use when you inadvertently play with your camera’s focus? The Oriental bishop or the lady? Ah, choices. Let’s have both, shall we? After all I said I wasn’t a man of virtue.
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The Merry Shopkeepers of Bukchon.

There’s a neighbourhood, in Seoul, called Bukchon. Traditional and small-towny in a city of tens of millions, it’s familiar to Instagrammers worldwide.

Bukchon has many charms. There are windy hill roads and villas for which the term leafy has, undoubtedly, been coined. Ambassadors here rub elbows with Korea’s rich and powerful.

Its main charm, however, are the roads where traditional Korean houses have weathered years of harsh climate, a few major conflicts and an exponential economic growth. The handful of hanok, as they are called, are indeed cherished by anyone with a selfie stick and a social media account, and why blame them? They’re gorgeous.

The roads immediately east or west of those oh-so-Instagrammable alleys are normally left alone by tourists. Much in the same way that the least trodden path is the one where porcini mushrooms can be found, those streets have charms aplenty. And it’s all down to those who, in a deliberate if awkward reference to Shakespeare, I’ve decided to call The Merry Shopkeepers of Bukchon. Confused? Scroll down.

Every house has a shop, every shop is individually owned, and every owner has his or her photo proudly displayed outside. In elegant black-and-white tones, printed large or small on strong, sturdy canvas, they smile – or even laugh heartily – to the world, beckoning it in.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The gulf from London, where finding a business not part of a franchise or chain is as rare as teeth in a hen’s beak, is gigantic and the attitude wholly refreshing. I find myself more inclined to stay here and to give my business to such smiley folks. Even when they just offer their backs.

It’s incredible, the difference a laughing person can make.

Or even a smiling one.

Who could be behind such an elegant campaign? Whose idea was it to turn these rather nondescript streets, these – let’s say it – normal shops into something one would love to stop at, visit and, perhaps, buy from?
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
There is a photographer’s studio on one of the streets: it’s undoubtedly the epicentre, as more portraits and photos testimony. Yet, most of our questions remain unanswered. And perhaps it’s better like this: at the end of the day, I don’t need to know the details; I’m perfectly content not to know. For me, Bukchon will forever be the borough of the Merry Shopkeepers.

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Live fish and fried shrimp. Searching for dinner in Noryangjin.

The sun was setting over Yeongdeungpo.

The sun was setting; lights on a legion of buildings were turning on and I couldn’t pronounce the name of the neighbourhood not even if it helped to save my bacon. Speaking of bacon, I hadn’t eaten since the breakfast omelette, served on the plane a good eight hours before that moment. It was about time to get something down the gullet.
Dining in an unknown city – and if you cannot read the signs it couldn’t get any more foreign than that – is an art I did not, and still don’t, master. Sure, there were some familiar places: a 7-11 with its load of soft buns filled with red bean paste, labelled “Japan Bread Technology”, and a burger joint named Lotteria (lottery, in Italian). In the solitude of my 19t floor room, whilst outside light flickered suavely and traffic ebbed and flowed, I hatched a plan.
There was a fish market in Noryangjin, a few stations away from my hotel: images of Tsuijiki in mind I reasoned that if there was fish on sale there would be people cooking it for the benefit of workers or shoppers with a short appetite fuse. Like me. Deal.

Signs in halting English guided me out of the train station, along a road, down some steps and into an underground passageway to a large building, more distribution centre than Boqueria market. Inside, massive lamps bounced crude, clinical white light on an orange floor made lucid by an omnipresent film of water. Notices, signs and leaflets were everywhere: pinned to walls, hanging from ceilings, stapled to desks and stalls. I looked at them, written in intelligible Hangul characters, and marvelled at the simple, futuristic beauty of Korean writing. One could use these elegant letters as the blueprint for circuit boards, fully expecting the resulting hardware to function.

Contrary to other such establishment, Noryangjin market was open all around the clock. On the way there I wondered how on Earth that could be achieved and fretted about freezers or exsiccation; once inside, it turned out that, much to the contrary, the merchandise was as fresh as it got.

Under the relentless lights swam, crawled and walked countless fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Groupers, bass, sole, snappers and many more unknown finfish floated in huge tanks, gazing with their bulbous eyes at trays of molluscs and at tubs where crabs of all sorts stood, in chitinous stoicism, one on top of the other. Customers would come and point at one of the swimmers: promptly the unlucky sod would be plucked out of the gurgling water, dispatched and turned into sashimi or fillets. Crabs, on the other hand, would be bundled into black bin bags for their journey to the pot.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I must admit a feeling of faint unease. I couldn’t but help relating what I was witnessing to a scene from the first Planet of the Apes, the one with Charlton Heston, that featured men in cages. I scurried upstairs, on the lookout for the promised restaurants.

The second level of the market was the promised land. Small restaurants, often nothing more than a few plastic tables, lined wide corridors running behind the trading floor. It seemed that each and every place was guarded by two or more punters tucking into a bewildering array of seafood prepared in ways I could only begin to understand. I couldn’t but feel some sympathy for the young couple that, in one corner, was smiling nervously at one another as they contemplated the gargantuan snow crab that had just been plonked on their table. Where do you start with that thing?
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Everything was new, mysterious and strange to the point that even the simple act of sitting down somewhere and ordering something felt as confusing as being initiated into a secret society. Humbled by such a display of culinary prowess I resolved to play more modestly, opting for a stall that did a brisk trade in fried animals of the deep. Aided by a friendly couple I settled for an optimistically large serving of whole shrimps and squid in batter, garnished with just a squirt of lime juice.

I might’ve had a few too many deep-fried crustaceans. That might explain why, once I alighted at Yeongdeungpo station, I chose to take the long way back, through some inviting back roads that promised to offer just the sort of walkabout that I needed to burn a few calories off.
The neighbourhood echoed of Tokyo’s Ueno with its narrow streets, low buildings and gingko trees yellowing in the autumnal night. A barber was still open, and so did a few convenience stores, casual restaurants and delis. Gluttony tempted me towards more fishy goodness under the form of fried tentacles, impaled on a stick and sprinkled with sesame seeds, but I resisted: I had more than my share for tonight.
People were walking home to a cluster of residential skyscrapers. On the walls of this forest of identical towers were abstract motifs, 3-digit numbers and a word in Latin characters, Prugio, its constructed meaning lost on me. A dark overpass led away from the clump of condominiums and towards the other side, above the rumbling trains. Memories of another gangway – the one above Aralsk’s railyard – rushed through my mind, but it could’ve been another planet.

The other side was decidedly less well kept. Minuscule rowhouses, built of flimsy wood, lined one side of the alley, giving way to cars parked on the street this flowed into: a herringbone of Hyundais and Kias sitting beneath a giant concrete overpass curving, almost with grace, above us. It was at that point that I noticed the people around me, including the elderly lady, hair coiffured with curlers, that beckoned me into one of the houses. She had an urgency that would’ve felt suspicious even if showed by the most welcoming Tajik villager: I looked around and noticed the prostitutes waiting for clients. I had to laugh: how likely was it for a foreigner to be coming here by chance? Most certainly, I reasoned as I giggled away, I had to be the first Westerner who decided to use a red-light district for a post-prandial stroll.
I pressed on, past the abandoned bedding of a homeless and three labourers playing dice; a little further twinkled some familiar signs: 7-11, Lotte Mart and, further still, Marriott. I was “home”.

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Sleepless in Seoul.

The idea for this post’s title has been respectfully pinched from this lovely Instagram account.
The idea of jet-lag was so new to me that it took me an inordinate amount of time to come to the conclusion that what was keeping me awake at 3AM in a Seoul hotel room wasn’t debt or guilt but, rather, my own body clock. It was early evening in London.
Granted, there were worse places where to find oneself unable to have a decent snooze than where I was that night: a luxuriously large hotel room featuring amenities that I wouldn’t know how to use (such as a walk-in wardrobe), perched atop 47 stories (with a few more above) of skyscrapers in Incheon (cue below for the thing as seen during the day).

Silently I made my way to the huge, floor-to-ceiling glasswall that abutted on hundreds of meters of pure air. A cluster of high-rise condominiums, that looked so towering from the ground up, now seemed like Lego toys, scattered around a park that didn’t feel larger than a flower bed.
As I sat on a cushion by the window I couldn’t but help feel excited. All around me everything was new and exotic. Every step I made took me somewhere I hadn’t been before; even by going to the corner shop – was there one, by the way? – I’d be breaking new ground. It occurred to me that I’d have been the world’s most enthusiastic Victorian explorer.
Plus, I couldn’t deny a certain feeling of partiality towards the building we were staying in. Skyscrapers have since long exerted a strong impression on me: far from seeing them as avatars of some latent male inadequacy (big phalluses and all that), I always perceived those buildings as symbols of humanity’s progress. There they were, tangible testimony that we could do what nature never designed us to do, living in the sky. Sitting on that cushion by the window, in the Korean night, I felt very much part of mankind’s avant-garde. Laugh if you will, I won’t take it badly.
It was late, but still there was movement on the streets and lights in the apartments. Where were they going? What were they doing? Could these people see me, sat cross-legged in the dark, looking down on them? At that moment, almost out of the blue, I remembered a DJ Krush song, Mu Getsu, that inspired one of my first, clumsy, attempts with composite photography. Without a tripod or a remote shutter controller, things were bound to be sub-optimal, but I decided to give it a go. The first result wasn’t half bad.

I left the camera on for longer, figuring I could wait for sunrise and do something with it; but when the alarm rang and I stumbled awake from the deep slumber I’d eventually fallen into, the day had long since begun.
Still, it wasn’t all for nothing.

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Autumn in the Heath.

If you’re familiar with the idiosyncrasies of English society, you’ll undoubtedly have encountered the odd phenomenon that, every time a major football tournament pops up, grips the entire nation. Chanting “Football’s coming home”, the entire England – from Hadrian’s Wall to Bognor Regis – will decide that this year is the yearand that their national team will bring home whichever trophy is up for grabs. Except that it never is.
The last few weeks have been pretty similar, from a travelling point of view, to the misfortunes of English football: work or private gallivants had been planned, sometimes even paid for, only to sublimate from solid reality to ephemeral desire in the space of a phone call. Resigned to stay in London, I resolved to get re-acquainted with a part of the city that I used to visit every day. West Hampstead.
Chances are that, no matter how often you’ve visited the city, you mightn’t have heard of West Hampstead, and of the Heath, the park that crowns it. This, it’s my firm belief, is because Hampstead wants it this way. You won’t find hedge fund managers boasting about the size of their portfolio; this is a place for viscounts with a passion for soaps.

Hampstead sits comfortably in the very top tier of London’s most expensive postcodes, together with other crème de la crème boroughs such as Belgravia or Kensigton but, unlike them, it’s not clogged with Chelsea tractors driven by Russian oligarch or footballers. West Hampstead is subtle, a place where the pedigree of those men and women in wax jackets and wellies is as long and illustrious as the one of the Wartburg dogs they take out for a stomp along the paths I used to jog through.

West Hampstead always inspired me sympathy for the eccentricity of its inhabitant, for its village feeling and for the constant reminder of that bygone era when everything was “Jolly good”; if ever there was a place where the days of Agatha Christie ever came to life, West Hampstead is it. So, let us start a journey through the Heath, from a side gate off Finchley Road to Parliament Hill’s belvedere. And let’s do it in company of some of the best and oddest newspaper titles coming from all corner of the countries collected by the Beeb, proof that eccentricity is still legion in this country. And guess what? One of these titles comes from Ham & High, Hampstead’s newspaper. But I won’t spoil the fun of telling you which one it is.
Dog gets stuck in TV cabinet
Fury after bus fails to appear
Toilet curse strikes again
Woman in sumo wrestler suit assaulted her ex-girlfriend in gay bar after she waved at man dressed at a Snickers bar
‘Smug’ swan attacks Dalmatian
Grass growing faster after rain
Granddad returns from Cornwall by bus

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“You’d be home by now.”

People in Lebanon spend more than 16% of [their] individual productive time in traffic.
Urban Transport Development Project – World Bank
For six months, straddling a winter and early summer of a few years ago, I tried commuting to work by bicycle. I was as fed up by the Tube as I could possibly be, and a job role change, requiring a switch from office hours to 6-on-3-off shifts introduced me to the night buses, which could be even worse than the Piccadilly Line. Besides, I used to cycle to lessons and work in Turin. There was, however, a little difference with the civilised stroll I used to do there, along segregated bike paths or parks by the river, and the 15-mile (one way) journey that I was to experience, all on major roads where an enlightened mind had decided that double-decker buses and carbon-fibre bikes could, effectively, share the same lane.
Traffic congestion in Lebanon is causing economic loss of 8-10% of GDP.
Ziad Nakat, Senior Transport Specialist, World Bank
Beirut has a problem with traffic. This is hardly breaking news and it puts her in company of almost any major city in the developing world where an increase personal spend has been rapidly invested on a set of wheels, regardless of  whether the roads these wheels were going to run on could support them or not. But, unlike many of those developing cities, Beirut seemed not to have neither a system of mass transit transportation nor plans to get one. Compound the problem with the fact that the majority of drivers appeared to have found their driving licences in an Easter egg’s surprise, and voilà, here’s why Beirut felt devilish to drive or walk through. On our gallivants, coughing on the exhausts and dodging SUVs parked almost on every sidewalk that wasn’t protected by metal spikes, we started seeing murals from The Chain Effect.
Vehicles [in Beirut] have a very low occupancy rate, estimated at 1.2 people per vehicle.
Arab Weekly
The murals were beautiful, well executed and had some great punch-lines. Burn fat not oil. If you had a bike you’d be home by now. They resonated with me, for they were two of the thoughts that had led me to cycling to work in the first place. But there was something else, in Beirut, that reminded me of my own experience: much in the same way that I’d sold my bike and got an Oyster card back, there weren’t any bikes whizzing through the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Hamra or elsewhere. Six months after my experiment started, a nip with a silver Range Rover at a roundabout graced by a pub going by the name The Jolly Waggoner had sent me spinning on the wet tarmac, a jumble of wheels and tubes and reflective Lycra that, luckily, attracted the attention of an incoming Lithuanian lorry driver. A continent away, I suppose the Beirut riders had come to my same realisation: burning fat and getting home sooner aren’t quite worth it if you can’t show off your beach body or get home at all.
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Harvest Moon.

I once met an elderly lady who lived in a minuscule Alpine village of which she was the only permanent inhabitant. Well into her seventies when we crossed paths, she was busy chopping down a young spruce tree, manoeuvring an axe with the flair that comes with practice. She politely waved away my offer for help and, having thinned down the branches, she started dragging the trunk with one hand, walking. My dog decided to sit down to admire the spectacle and, if ever I saw a look of admiration on a German shepherd dog, that was the day. “They’re easiest to cut down when it’s full moon” she explained as she legged it up the trail. “It’s the harvest moon”.
Fifteen-or-so years later her words came back to me, as I entered the A4 motorway on a lovely late summer evening. A huge, pinkish moon was rising above the motorway, just before my eyes. Harvest moon.
September 29th, 2018 was the last day of summer, as far as we were concerned. Trying, and failing, to shake off a Neil Young earworm, T and I pulled up for coffee at a bar like dozen others in rural Piedmont, that part of the region where rice paddies are a dime a dozen and where the weather is either fog or heat. Even the word for the humid heat sounds oppressive. Afa.
It was warm, today, but not stupidly so, which was a good thing, for we were about to add another tack to a ritual that had been running, in this country, for at least 25 centuries. Grape harvesting, or vendemmia.
T and I went to school together, and later shared a room through university. Two years ago, he’d only know how to open a bottle of the stuff. Now, this was his second harvest.
A trickle of friends arrived at the vineyard. They were, at their core, friends from high school, with whom we’d kept in contact throughout the years. Two have brought along their wife and husband, one his dad. It was a diverse bunch, as well: T, born in Sri Lanka; R, hailing from Romania; me, living abroad. It also was the most overqualified bunch of grape pickers in Novara province. One of the fathers even used to design nuclear reactors. Despite that – how many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? – we made good progress, filling basket after basked with grapes. Erbaluce, Nebbiolo, Bonarda.
It was, though, tough work. This year, say in unison T and M, his second-in-command, has been good: cold when it needed, hot when required, rain just so, no hailstorm. A far cry from 2017 with frost in April, drought in June and hail in August. Yet, not everything was hunky-dory. It’d rained three times in the last few days, rolling sessions of thunderstorms that didn’t give enough time to the fruit to dry up. The result was that, here and there, individual grapes swelled up until they burst open, causing the ones around them to rot. We spot those rotten fruits from their colour, a light purple, and by their sickeningly sweet smell that attracted legions of fruit flies. As we cut through the unusable grapes, I asked T how much he thought he’d lost. “200 kilograms”, he replied, approximately 5% of the total. Gone in the time it took for some rain to fall down.
Once dusk fell we were back at the cantina, to feed the gurgling machine that squashed the grapes. Stalks flowed out of one end; wort pumped out of another side, into a towering crowd of steel tanks. One ton and a half had been harvested for the day, 600 litres of wine once all was going to be said and done. The evening fell as we finished the work, stopping then to taste a sip of the wort. One year from now, if nothing – freeze, heat, bacteria – got in its way, it’d be joining the bottles from the 2017 vintage in the nearby cellar.
That, however, was the future. For now, we knew that, tomorrow, we’d be back for more of the same.
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There and away – Driving through the ‘Stans.

As I sat scribbling this post on my notepad, on the plane back home, it occurred to me that the past two car journeys had been the first ones, in Central Asia, where we hadn’t been serenaded non-stop by some Russian hardbass compilation. That was probably why I had Metallica playing in the in-seat entertainment ever since we boarded. Call it, if you will, noise withdrawal syndrome.
We had hired a driver, we were told, who’d be driving a Toyota pick-up and be speaking English. Aibek turned up bang-on time at Bishkek Manas airport at the wheel of a Ford Galaxy embellished by bootleg Audi alloys. He bore such as resemblance with Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar that I was soon aching to hear him say “It’s a trap!”, if only he spoke English.
Still, soon we were out of the airport and on the road, cruising with the sun on our faces, the windows down and the deafening whine of a V-belt on its very last legs. It wasn’t, then, at all surprising when Aibek turned off the motorway – itself a surprise – and announced that he’d stopped “Dva minute” to get it checked at a repair shop.
I should probably describe this place. To call it simply ‘repair shop’ would do it no justice whatsoever, much in the same way as a 10-car pile-up isn’t a minor bodywork scratch. Imagine a citadel of workshops, stores selling everything from air filters to bonnets, a scrapyard and the obligatory buffet serving shashliks: a grid of roads made of pebbles and dust, whipped by the wind, with mountains shimmering far away in the haze. It’s also right to point out that the entire citadel, even those ‘buildings’ rising up to two stories, was made of corrugated sheets of metal and, preferably, re-used shipping containers. Admittedly, Central Asia as a whole has a thing for shipping containers, but this unknown corner of the outskirts of Bishkek was the veritable hotspot. If I were anyone at CMA-CGM trying to figure out where all their boxes had ended, I wouldn’t look any further.
Men wearing the combo Adidas slippers-socks-dirty overalls moved around, fags perennially lit, throwing themselves into the innards of cars at various stages of destruction with gay abandon. One such fellow, a feral Russian with a mop of hair worthy of a young George Harrison, squatted besides our stricken Galaxy, wedged his head (and fag) underneath the wheel arc and proceeded to dismantle the offending piece of equipment. Aibek was dispatched to source a spare, whilst we did what everyone else was doing, that was waiting in the shade, looking at a burping dog and trying not to fall asleep. Our mechanic had to resort to hydraulic jacks to haul the car up in order to fix the new V-belt, something that evidently hurt his feelings, but in little more than an hour and a bit we were ready to bid farewell to him and the burping dog.
The Pamir Highway felt as if it belonged to another continent as we glided down towards lake Issyk Kul, in the east of Kyrgyzstan. The motorway we were cruising on was a dual-carriageway affair of smooth tarmac, with a sturdy central reservation and relatively little traffic. We averaged 130 km/h with no issues.
Even the environment was different. So far, in Central Asia, I’d seen Kazakh steppes, Tajik high-altitude deserts, Uzbek flatlands and Kyrgyz Alpine meadows. The mountains we saw reminded me of Oman: cliffs of nude rock darting towards a sky blurred by a heat haze, wispy brushes, sun-burnt grass.
Then, out of this expanse of golden-browns, the blue enormity of Lake Issyk Kul popped out like a Jack-in-the-box. The opposite shore lied, invisible, behind the thick haze, giving us the illusion of being on the shore of a sea much further to the west. In fact, had the white-washed houses of Santorini appeared, nestled on the flank of a hill, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
– § –
Fast forward a couple of days, and Aibek was again on our doorstep, his Galaxy at the ready. Worryingly enough, he’d added a spare wheel on the roof. Yet, we threw worries to the wind and drove east, coasting yet again the lake. We were passing through a chain of small villages of izbas – metal roofs, wobbly fences, fading blue-and-white paintwork – where kids in uniform marched with a sense of purpose towards school, the building itself one of the only two public constructions in each hamlet, together with the mosque. It was satisfying to see that it was the school the one in better nick, cared for and embellished with a sense of pride.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
There were a few reminders of the Soviet past of this bucolic idyll besides the poplars, the imprinting of the very villages we were going through and, here and there, the gutted ruins of collective farms that had must’ve been looted the day after the dissolution of the USSR. Somewhere the legacy was stronger, such as in Frunze. The village had retained its Bolshevik name, unlike the capital that had shredded it off as soon as it could and, midtown, a bus station still sported a large hammer and sickle.
A little after the village of Ak-Bulak our fellowship with the lake ended; its shores swerved to the right, towards Karakol and the Tien Shan mountains, whilst we took a road leading left, aiming for Kensu and the Kazakh border. We journeyed through a valley that lacked in the cinematic beauty of a jagged row of Himalayan peaks but that made up for it with serene, unspoilt harmony.
Traffic was sparse and, as soon as the road surface degraded from smooth to rough gravel, it fell to almost nothing: a couple of Russian bikers and a cyclist, Polish flag waving in the breeze. The nature was gorgeous. Thick larch woods ran up the hills, trading places with meadows where flocks of animals, when they weren’t busy crossing the road, were growing fat on the good grass. A gurgling torrent snaked, silvery, through the valley, feeding small clusters of brushes. Here and there, in the thickets, we could spot clumps of birches, their foliage already turning yellow.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
A series of false cols finally gave way to a limitless plateau, dug through the eons by an unimaginable glacier. On our near side, the hamlet of Kensu, Kyrgyzstan. On the other the town of Kegen, Kazakhstan. In the middle was a solitary yurt and the border fence.
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America’s immigration controls are designed to intimidate. Britain’s, especially at most London airports, to infuriate. Kyrgyz and Kazakh border guards would start out grim and severe and, by the time your passport is stamped and all is said and done, you’d be cracking jokes and trading smiles about long-lost Hungarian cousins and Italian football. Yet again I failed to win a border patrolman of the superiority of Torino FC over other Serie A teams.
Barely into Kazakhstan and everything changed again. All was bigger, drier, dustier, sparser. Towns were few and far inbetween, all with a distinct frontier feeling about them. Yet, Aibek rubbed his hands with glee at the sight of how cheap petrol was (30p for a litre) and filled up at the first occasion. We drove through long straights and into a series of exhilarating hairpins as the road snaked through a series of barren hills, emerging at the margins of a wide plain. But for a few wrinkles, we knew that it was all flat from here to the Urals.
We were on the final stretch, but the road had yet one last spectacle to give. Aibek turned right at an unmarked junction, gliding along a ribbon of black asphalt so new that squads of workers were still building its hard shoulder. We stopped at a guard post, standing watch over the nothingness. A little while further, Aibek parked the Galaxy and emphatically announced “Charinskaya Canyon”, pointing ahead.

We piled out of the van and walked in the direction he’d indicated. A crevasse, tens of meters deep, opened the flat land. A fissure of biblical proportion had cut through the strata of rock, exposing the layers in delicate towers of stone. We followed with our eyes as it descended, growing deeper towards another, even larger, gorge that ran from right to left towards the horizon. But for a handful of people and some semi-invisible desert rodents we had this Kazakh Grand Canyon all to ourselves.
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It’s embarrassing to admit it, especially for somebody born and raised in the mountains, but I suffer from vertigo. It’s not a constant issue; in facts, it’s sneaky and unpredictable, raising its ugly head when I least expect it. I might be walking on a gangway made of wire metal, tens of meters high up above the concrete floor of a hangar, with not even the faintest sense of malaise, but the sight of the gentle incline that then abruptly gave way to the abyss of Charyn… well, that was another story. Guts knotted in a lump of dread and legs that had assumed the consistency of Jell-O, all I could do was to just loiter a few meters away from the edge, unable to savour it all. And it was with a mixture of disappointment and joy, relief and guilt that I turned back, once we had finished, to the waiting Galaxy.
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The last stretch of the road was a civilised affair, straight through a motorway into the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Almaty’s rush hour. As we drove around the grid of roads that made up down town I struggled to reconcile what I was seeing with the city I’d grown to love under a snowfall in the winter of 2016. That, though, was all to come; for now all there was to do was to stop, offload our packs, salute Aibek, mix-up currencies and in so doing give him an extraordinarily lavish tip and, finally, check into our hotel. Somewhere in Almaty, a Kyrgyz man who looked like Admiral Ackbar would be out partying.
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The devil’s horsemen.

For the Parthians shot as they fled, being, indeed, more adept at this than anyone except the Scythians, and it is certainly a very clever manoeuvre – to fight and to look after one’s own safety at the same time.  
Plutarch, Life of Crassus

There is not a person in the whole nation who cannot remain on his horse day and night.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae

Also girls and women ride. We saw also them to carry bows and quivers.
Giovanni da Pian del Carmine, Ystoria mongalorum
By nature the Mongols are good at riding and shooting. Therefore they took possession of the world through this advantage of bow and horse.
Anonymous Chinese chronicler

When they appear with an overwhelming attack, they disappear with the same rapidity. First they simulate flight then, turning their horses, they attack, but all these time they shoot arrows.
Johannes Aventinus, Annalium Boiorum

While Genghis Khan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries… Yesunge shot a target at 335 ald
Stone inscription found at Nerchinsk, Russia

On horseback they buy and sell, they take their meat and drink, and there they recline on the narrow neck of their steed, and yield to sleep so deep as to indulge in every variety of dream.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae

All Tartars are skilled archers.
Giovanni da Pian del Carmine, Ystoria mongalorum

You would not hesitate to call them the most terrible of all warriors, because they fight from a distance with missiles.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae
We watched a parade of horseback archers gallop past us, throwing three, sometimes four, arrows within ten seconds. As I fumbled with my camera, trying to capture them, or at least to do them justice, I thought about what to write. I thought about the noise of the rushing horses, the cheers of the crowd, the whirring sounds of the arrows. Then I realised that it’d all been said before. All these horsemen’s ancestors – Mongols, Huns, Magyars, Parthians, Scythians – had already been described before; sometimes unjustly, sometimes scathingly, only rarely with accuracy. But always with the deep respect used for fiery animals of prey, for unforgiving mountains or stormy seas, because these were people that instilled awe in those city-dwelling civilisations that crossed their path.
They still do.
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Genghis’ Camp.

This didn’t feel like Central Asia.
The road was smooth, the ride quiet, the old Mercedes van that did the honours as our marshrutka, or collective taxi, wasn’t packed to the gunwales. Our driver, a faded Denver Broncos hat planted on his head, hadn’t put on the stereo any hammering Russian hardbass music. In fact, but for a few squeaks and the sound of the wind, we could only hear chatting and laughing on board.
It didn’t feel like the Central Asia I was used to. I sang my own earworms inside my head whilst the road took us through a sequence of small but lively villages, dotted along the Issyk-Kul coastline like pearls. Not even the odd statue of Lenin could dispel this feeling. You thought you had the region figured out, and then this.
Jailoo. In Kyrgyz, as well as in other Turkic languages, a jailoo is a summer pasture. A place where to take your herds in the good season, somewhere high up, where the grass is fat and green and water plentiful, whilst down below – in the flatland – the heat has dried the wells and the vegetation is golden-brown. Transhumance was a concept familiar to me: after all, how many times have I been woken up, in May and October, by the sound of cows parading to and from the mountains? But jailoo isn’t just a place where to plop your yurt and caravan. Jailoo is also a place to party, for isolated families to come together: kok boru is played here, food is eaten and kumiss, fermented mare’s milk, drank.
We were en route to the largest jailoo in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrchyn – pronounced K’rrch’n – is full. Cars are parked on the near side of this valley created by the confluence of three gorges, on the right of a torrent. A metal bridge, of the kind that is usually plonked over a gully by a tank, connected our shore to what lied beyond. And what lied beyond was, for us, almost hard to believe.
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The novelty of seeing a yurt, alone in a vast meadow or in somebody’s back garden, hadn’t quite worn off for me by the time we arrived at Kyrchyn Jailoo. To see dozens, hundreds of them, all together in a dusty plain, was truly something else.
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Yet here they were. As far as the eye could see, on the left side of the valley, were outlandish ogive-shaped tents, not too dissimilar from gigantic missile heads poking out of the ground. Banners and flags flew in the wind: some big and some small, some bearing signs we could recognise – the Kazakh sun and eagle, or the yurt laths depicted at the centre of the Kyrgyz one – whilst others showed symbols whose meaning we could only guess. Strange palisades and watch towers had been erected at random intervals, and the pendulum movement of the giant swings (planks of wood large enough for two people) gave my overexcited mind the idea that this could be siege weapons testing time at Genghis’ camp.
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This place was real, not some construct engineered by an entertainment company, a Central Asian Disneyland peddling an idealised version of some imaginary world. This was first and foremost an encampment of herders, with added crowds of city folks and a few foreigners. The herders had brought in their yurts, and were there for a reason: that reason wasn’t giving spectacle to us, it was having a good time. Of all the aspects of Kyrchyn, this was my favourite.
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Lucid, lean horses roamed everywhere, with or without youngsters perched on their backs. Not stepping on their droppings, pulverised as they were by hundreds of hoofs and feet, soon became impossible, and even sooner we stopped caring. Food cooked everywhere, in cauldrons and barbecues and on fires, its smells – goat skewers, horse stews, vegetables – mixing with the smoke of wood fires or stoves running on dried cow dung. Gigantic cast iron cauldrons bubbled on top of fires dug into the ground, the cooker leaning on the margins of the pit and the fire burning down below. I’d always wondered how did nomads cooked in the steppe, without rocks to form a platform for their pots. Now I had an answer.
Smoke and dust waved up and down the valley with the wind. One moment they’d both be choking us, the next we’d be in crystal-clear air. In those latter instances we’d emerge, spluttering, to hear the unworldly sounds carried by the wind: the guttural beauty of throat singing, or the delicate melodies of string instruments that generations of refinement and travel along the Silk Road would’ve turned in our violins and cellos.
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At sundown we’d leave the competition grounds and returned to what we’d called “the village”. Those moments – long shadows, amber lights, the crowds thinning down as everyone headed down – were my favourites. At those times, the fleeting village of Kyrchyn Jailoo looked the most poetic. Old women in traditional garbs would play on stages and rehears in the background, tickling their version of the Jew’s harp. Children, instead, would be engrossed in board games that looked as if they’d changed little since medieval times. And, around them, lone spectators sat on the short grass, taking it all in, witnesses of an ancient tradition that, there and then, looked very much alive.

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