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- 26,785 hits
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.
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.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
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.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
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.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
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.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
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.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
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.
Generalisations are often prone to error and misrepresentation, but – sometimes – they do hit the mark. I, for instance, always attached an aura of upper class, or in other words a certain whiff of snobbery, with all activities performed on horseback. Lancelot, and not the dirt-poor peasant archers of Crécy, rode a horse. Dressage, show-jumping and polo aren’t exactly the sports played by the masses in a Rio favela. That horse-box you can’t overtake on a country road will be drawn by a late model Range Rover. You get the idea.
I’d held this belief for a good thirty years. Until one sunny morning, 4thof September 2018. The place was Cholpon-Ata, the game was kok boru.
What is kok boru? For starters, it’s a game with different names depending on where it’s played. Buzkash in Afghanistan, kokpar in Kazakhstan, gögbörü in that corner of Turkey, around lake Van, where communities from Kyrgyzstan migrated centuries ago. Whatever the name, the substance is the same: two teams on horseback, whose aim is to deliver the headless carcass of a sheep (or goat) into the opponent’s goal. If there was a horseback game that is not evoking images of gentlemanly piss-ups at the country club, it’s got to be this one.
It was with this thought in mind that, on that morning, we approached Cholpon Ata’s Hippodrome. It was our first day at the 2018 World Nomad Games and, fresh as we were, we turned out at 09.00 for a scheduled 09.30 start. It was, after all, Central Asia and we should’ve known better. In fact the place was almost empty, the other spectators – evidently more used to the elastic timings – trickling in little by little, so that when we eventually started, at 10.30, it was almost a full house. In the meantime, we worked on our suntan and watched a few jockeys jogging their horses at various paces.
Once everyone was seated, and a rather bombastic overture played on the speakers, Mongolia and the Russian republic of Altai were invited to the pitch to fight. Please note the choice of the word fight: it’s used for a reason.
Kok Boru roughly translates, we were told, to Grey Wolf; the story is that the game, originally, was borne out of the habit, followed by Kyrgyz herders, to chase the wolf packs that threatened their herds: when they caught them, they’d kill one wolf and then throw its dead carcass to one another, whilst still at gallop. With such a pedigree, however apocryphal, how could the 24 men (12 per team) and horses be settling in for anything but a brawl, or the equine equivalent of a knife fight?
We were, however, in for yet another surprise. Kok Boru is, there’s no denying, a violent sport – it features a dead animal, at the end of the day – but the level of technique and strategy, as we were to find out, was off the scale.
The starting point of every action, after an interruption, is a sort of Mexican stand-off. The referee would choose two players from the two teams: they’d be tasked to pick up the goat. A delicate dance ensues, with each player carefully manoeuvring his horse, within a confined pocked of pitch, to stop his opponent and, at the same time, give himself a chance to pick up the carcass. The referee, stopwatch at hand, is timing them. Eventually, out of this tangle of men, whips, legs and tails a winner will emerge. He’s succeeded in putting his horse in the exact sweet spot: the other player’s moves are limited, and the dead, headless lump of meat and hair that once was a goat is there, ready to be caught.
Yes, but how?
A dead goat lumped on the ground is no taller than 30, 40 cm. The withers of a horse is, well, some 120 cm higher. A rider, no matter how Lilliputian, will be taller still. How can a kok boru player pick up a dead animal weighting some 30-35kg, all without getting unsaddled, or losing his kamcha, or whip, and whilst keeping the other player at bay? The answer was, simply and astonishingly, by bending over so much that the head is on par – or below – the horse’s belly, one leg is up in the air, one hand is holding the bridle and the kamcha is serrated between his teeth, much like a charging pirate would do with a blade. And that’s precisely what the riders did.
Now, assume you’re a kok boru player. You picked up the goat, and its lumpy body is now in your hand. What are you going to do with it? You can drop it astride the horse, across the neck of the animal. Or perhaps you can keep on holding it with your hand (but, mind you, you’ll have to keep holding the kamcha in your mouth, and you need it to kick the horse). Another option is to put a leg over the goat, and ride as if you were a passenger on the tube of a bicycle. You can’t, remember, wedge it underneath your saddle, because that’d be cheating. Ok, whichever way you choose, holding is taken care of. Now what?
Run, Forrest, run.
Each side of the field has one big doughnut of clay, called a kazan. To me, it looked like the head of a large amphora, buried up to the neck in the sand: that’s where the goat carcass needs to be thrown in order to score a point. Sylvester Stallone, in that scene of Rambo III where he played the Afghan equivalent of the game, made it look all simple but – believe me – it’s anything but.
The first thing to consider, as we already briefly discussed earlier, is that goats haven’t been designed to be decapitated and transported at full gallop; on the other hand, it can also be argued that men aren’t designed to be handling, at the same time, a running horse, a thick whip and a dead animal. Lastly, there will be 12 people trying their damnest to stop you.
Suppose that a player, goat in hand, makes a dash for the opponents’ kazan, like it happened at least a dozen times just in the first half of Mongolia-Altai; let’s also suppose that it’s Mongolia doing the honours, as it indeed happened almost every time. The entire Mongol team would kick their horses in the same direction as the one of their team mate (in a charge that my fervid imagination didn’t need much to liken to one of Genghis’ hordes). But so would do the whole Altai team, one thought in mind: wrestle the sodding goat out of the hands of the Mongol rider; failing that, drive the sodding Mongol rider away from their precious kazan.
It was a display of skill like I’ve seldom seen before. Whilst the goat holder sped towards his goal, an Altai team member would flank him; then he’d all but leap from his saddle, throwing the upper part of his body on the Mongol horse (remember, they’re galloping). The Altai would then reach to the goat and try, with almighty pushes and shoves, to wrestle it from the Mongol’s reach, whilst the latter would try and hold it. This manoeuvre succeeded in a couple of times, ending with one player with the animal, and the other more or less unsaddled.
In other occasions, instead, it’d be a group effort. The Altai players would mob the goat holder and the Mongols would do the same. What would ensue reminded me of those rolling mauls you see in rugby, with the advancing team pushing towards the kazan and the defending one trying to steer the whole pack towards the side lines, effectively sending them offside.
It was an incredible spectacle to watch, a sight to behold. Picture a dozen, if not more, of horses and riders in tight formation. Close combat. Dust rises, men shout commands, exhortations, insults or all three at once. Whips piston down. A jumble of legs, horses neighing, all accompanied by throat singing diffused by the stadium speakers. It was primordial, visceral. The climax would climb to its apex, broken only by the pack reaching the sideline, or a horse rearing up. The pack would dissolve, only to re-start again soon afterwards.
Then, it happened. Mongolia’s Number 9 –Nauryzkhan Khajnabi – made a clean break and threw himself towards the Altai kazan, his horse running for Queen and country, if only Mongolia was a monarchy.
A nearby Altai defender tried to grab him, but failed. More joined in, mobbing Khajnabi from all sides, but it was for nothing: he still led the rumbling group of men and quadrupeds as they tumbled before the kazan.
Horses mightn’t be the smartest of animals, but stupid they ain’t. Ask them to gallop head over toe into a hard obstacle, with no way to jump over it, and even the dumbest horse in the house will do what’s sensible: it’ll refuse. So did Nauryzkhan’s ride, braking with his front quarter so hard that the back legs almost buckled and gave way; that, I guess, was what Khajnabi was waiting for. He stood on the saddle and, propelled by the kinetic energy of the stopping animal, threw the goat carcass in the kazan. Perfect centre. Mongolia 1, Altai 0.
The game was over in a heartbeat, Mongolia the deserving winners. We left, mesmerised by the skills, bravery and utter violence displayed in those 40, dense minutes. Kok boru, the legend said, was a divertissement for pastoral societies, but we couldn’t fail but notice how the talents required for this sport (horsemanship, group coordination, the intimate bond between mount and rider) could very well be used in battle. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to think at Genghis Khan’s generals sitting on the sidelines of one such game, choosing their lieutenants amongst the most prominent players on the field.
We left the Hippodrome, but the excitements for the day weren’t quite over yet. A van waited outside, his driver screaming “Kyrchyn jailoo, Kyrchyn!”, the two yalmost breathed and a rich, rolling r.K’rrch’n.we boarded, and drove towards the biggest yurt camp we’d ever seen.
I’ve been in a place where Hungarians dress up like they used to do a millenium ago, speed to a full gallop and then throw arrows into a padded target, whilst Kyrgyz flags flutter in the wind, yurts are everywhere and there are some clouds promising rain up the valley.
I might be a while.
This post dates from over a year ago. It wasn’t meant for publication on this blog; a book was going to be its destiny, a book on travels in Central Asia. Alas, this wasn’t to be; yet, I liked this chapter too much, my first foray in some sort of fiction, or into some kind of writing where the lines between what happened, what could’ve happened and what I imagined are purposely blurred. So here it goes.
To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers – In fact, to see life.
Unnoticed by most, a watershed moment took place, in Western Europe, sometime in the 1980s. Depending on which side of it you sat, you either had experience of black-and-white television, having your passport stamped when travelling, say, from France to Germany or, simply, you didn’t. I belonged to the latter group: I grew with arcade games, ditched music cassettes for CDs before I had money to buy my own records and, crucially, never really got the hang of overnight trains.
In fact, my only experience of such method of travelling was a journey to Frankfurt, Germany, which I took at the tender – at least in those days – age of 15, which left me, well, intimidated. The journey didn’t go too bad, but the pre-dawn arrival into Frankfurt, parading beneath a forest of skyscrapers, towering factory chimneys and high-rises dispelled whatever cockiness I might’ve had. I stood silently, looking at those enormous structures and their red anti-collision lights blinking in unison. I’d never seen anything so big before and if it didn’t feel like Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City, then I didn’t know what did. Later, in the cavernous hall of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, I stood petrified in a corner, waiting for my connection as the station’s security and punks in leather jackets fought pitched battles on the platforms and tracks, their shouts echoing across the vaulted roof.
Some 15 years later, with only that precious experience, I approached Kyzyl-Orda station, on my way to Aralsk, somehow gingerly and decided to do what I always did whenever I wasn’t sure of my actions: I sat down and looked at everyone else. So it was that, by sitting and observing, a well-rehearsed ecosystem came into focus.
A train would pull up at the platform, not before a copious amount of announcements in Kazakh and Russian were made; steps would be deployed and an army of surly attendants would descend on them, one per car and none of them smiling. An elaborate charade would then ensue: those alighting would toss their wares down the steps and then follow them, jumping into the embrace of loving ones picking them up, or simply shouldered their packs and legged it out if no-one had bothered coming to see them. Travellers in jocks and sandals would erupt out, puffing fags as if it was going out of fashion – trains were ferociously no-smoking – and went on to buy food at the omnipresent stalls, where small ladies with hankies in lieu of headscarves would happily sell them tomatoes, whole watermelons, bottles of juice or kompot, as well as round bread and bricks of cheese. In the meantime those who were joining had started climbing aboard, something easier said than done, for it seemed that they’d all decided to relocate and had chosen the train as the mean to do precisely that. The most incredible supply of things went up the steps, bundled into carry-ons, fake Louis Vuitton handbags, cardboard boxes, jute sacks, crates, nets and supermarket carrier bags. If there wasn’t the proverbial kitchen sink it was because I hadn’t been looking on long enough.
In the undergrowth of the station, individuals whose role wasn’t immediately understandable moved around with a sense of purpose. Men in blue overalls and high-vis jackets, plugged in radio sets cackling unintelligible Kazakh, performed obscure tasks between the cars. A woman dressed in exactly the same garb walked the length of the train, hitting with a 2-pound mallet specific points of each wheelset. She listened to the echo and then, visibly satisfied, moved on to do it again on another car. It was also security central: station staff checked my baggage through an X-ray machine and opened the pack on the lookout for scissors and vodka; on the platform, police officers mingled with the railway company security staff and men in fatigues who I assumed being other cops, or perhaps soldiers. Yet, shady deals seemed to happen everywhere I looked, chiefly under the form of a flourishing secondary market for tickets peddled by a small but admirably keen gang of touts.
Armed with this wealth of knowledge and the experience of another train ride, I entered Aralsk station at 5AM of a Sunday. I rightfully expected to be alone, but it turned out that silly o’clock was a good time as any for Aralsk, with women sleeping in the waiting room under Lenin’s beady eye and quite a lot of people milling about. There was a surprising amount of chatting, giggling, coughing and retching. Outside on the platform, at regular intervals somebody fired a glob of phlegm into the dark tracks, evidently the station’s spittoon, where it landed with ballistic accuracy. Bats pirouetted in the air, chasing the flying cockroaches which, in a bid to save their shells, would dive for the ground where they’d land with a chitinous clunk. Freight trains, gigantic behemoths carrying gas and mineral ore, came and went at walking pace.
Aralskoye more had two platforms, linked with wooden walkways strewn across the tracks. Following an exhortation from the lady on the tannoy, a brief speech that anyone but me could understand, everyone stood up, gathered their things and charged for the second platform. I followed sheepishly. The Aktobe express popped out of the night as if it’d emerged from an invisible tunnel, announcing its arrival with enthusiastic blasts of its foghorn, coming to rest two sets of tracks away from the second platform.
I was evidently the only one who’d stopped to wonder what had led a train, pulling up at a station with no other traffic and two available platforms, to stop exactly in the middle of the railyard, for soon I was the only one not scampering above the tracks and between the sleepers. Everyone else – students heading to university, families, pensioners carrying bagfuls of watermelons – legged it on the clinker. I followed suit, tripping into the flip-flops I was wearing, backpack bouncing madly on my shoulders, frantically looking for the sign heralding car no. 15.
Kazakh trains have three classes; VIP, kupe and platzkart, the main differential being the number of berths crammed in each cabin: two in VIP, four in kupe and six in platzkart. Considering that everything else – bedding, toilets, the berths themselves – was exactly the same, I was booked in platzkart for my twelve-hour journey to Aktobe and, as the matron in charge of car 15 pointed out before tossing me a fresh set of bed sheets wrapped in plastic, I had berth 2 in the first compartment.
Feeling, rather than seeing, my way around the compartment I realised I was late to my own party, for all spots seemed taken. At the top, berths 3 and 6 were occupied by the most monumental case of excess baggage that any airline had ever had to see, including what looked like a hay bale rolled up in shrink-film. Down below, in berths 1 and 4 lied two figures, their features blurred like Pompeii mummies but undeniably human and unequivocally asleep. Finally, in the berths at eye level – 2 and 5 – were a strange chimera with a head full of black hair and two small feet, a woman and a child and, on the other side, where I was supposed to sleep, a man.
I sat in the penumbra on the corridor swivel seat, bed linen pack on my knees, the train swaying and rocking, looking suitably perplexed. I must’ve been doing a good job of it, for the matron came in from the bright vestibule, looked at me and then proceeded to toss the occupant of berth 2 awake with the same urgency I’d have used in the event of an impending shipwreck. Feeling rather embarrassed for the how the poor chap had been handled I mounted what I hoped looked like a morally reprobate attempt at letting him enjoy the berth whilst I settled on the – slightly sagging, I had to admit – corridor swivel seat. The matron had none of it: she swatted away my lamentations like a particularly slow fly and gave another healthy ruffling to the guy who, by then, had had enough of being used like a human tumble dryer and descended from the berth clutching a Coke bottle like a teddy bear.
Feeling like a real estate developer ought to after he’d kicked orphans out of a shelter to build a luxury condo, I didn’t dare looking at the guy. He, however, didn’t seem to be holding any particular grudge against me; he gulped half the bottle’s contents down the gullet, shot a burp loud enough to wake camels outside, pounded his chest and said “Stasyon”. I had simply witnessed the wake-up call service, complimentary on all Kazakh railway sleeper trains. I replaced his bedsheets with mine, found a spot at the bottom of my couch for my backpack, climbed clumsily aboard and was asleep before the sun had the time to rise above the steppe.
Kazakh trains are constitutionally self-catering but for an endless supply of boiling water at the end of each car, and there are plenty of advices, online and in guides, to bring one’s own food onboard. As I woke up and went for a wander around the car it was obvious that my fellow travel companions had taken the suggestions to heart. Compared with my supply of three bottles of water, two rounds of bread and a bag of Veggie Pigs I’d flown in from London, every man woman and child had brought enough calories to give a stadiumload of Texans an almighty sugar rush. Tea appliances populated every compartment, together with melons, watermelons, gherkins, bread, boxes of plov, vegetables of all kinds and cookies of the most repellent colours imaginable.
Car 15 came to life as I did, queueing up to the samovar and toilet; having had my caffeine fix I retreated to my cubbyhole from where I could be a privileged observer of delicate balances at play between the other occupants of compartment 1. Flat steppe rolled outside the grimy window, so remarkably homogeneous that, if it was a looping video projected on a tarpaulin held just outside the train, I wouldn’t have noticed it. The human landscape, instead, was a lot more compelling.
I believed my compartment mates were a family and an interesting one at that. The berth opposite to mine was occupied by a young mother and her 4-year-old son; below resided a man in his 40s and, directly under my berth, a teenage girl. They made for a puzzling family scene, a lot more Westernised than the ones I was accustomed to in this corner of the world, for they seemed a lot more like an archipelago of islands adrift in an ocean of silence than the bustling ensemble ubiquitous in the ‘Stans. To see this was sad and interesting at the same time, and I was keen to understand more.
Mother and son were undoubtedly affectionate and inseparable. She was lean, dapper in a bright-green two-piece house dress, even though the pink half-socks decorate with rabbits were, frankly, the stuff of nightmares. She had a sharp yet beautiful face and stern looks enhanced by the severe make up she wore: two lines above the eyes and dark lipstick. Her jet-black hair was accurately combed and knotted in a ponytail. Her son was strikingly beautiful and incredibly well-behaved: he lived through the whole journey, an experience who’d have brought me apoplectic with boredom had I been him, with Olympic calm, either playing with his mother or keeping himself company with a tiny action figure of a mermaid or a small sketchbook on which he drew the Simpson’s characters printed on his own tank top.
If the similarities between him and his mother were evident, I could see a lot of the man who I took to be his father in him too. They both had regular features, the same we appreciate in actors and models, with sharp cheekbones, strong jaw, straight and well-sized nose. Their almond eyes were intelligent and inscrutable. The boy was still some 15 years away from it, and his father perhaps 10 years after his prime, but both wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a city bar.
The man was a bit weather-worn, with wrinkles around the eyes and hair going snow-white above the temples, and a smattering of gold teeth every time he smiled, but I could clearly see his lineage in the young kid. But even if their looks gave a hint of relation, the same couldn’t be surmised just by looking at their interaction, or lack thereof. Fact was, the boy never spoke, or dared approaching, the man and the man never made any gesture towards his progenies or consort; he just sat on his bed, plugged into a smartphone linked to a device with blinking lights, router or power bank or perhaps both. In the ten hours we were to pass together, he spoke only with the teenager girl sitting opposite him, and no more than three times.
She was, perhaps, the most multifaceted character of this rather bi-dimensional cast. She was twelve or thirteen, at that point when teenagers are neither here nor there, children or adults, clumsily out of place. Tall for her age, with long black hair, intelligent eyes and a flourishing of acne she didn’t seem to mind. She wore a black top that read, in loud white letters, Carpe that fucking diem and I found myself hoping she’d chosen it knowingly.
Were they together and, if so, why? The woman couldn’t possibly be the mother of the girl as well as of the child, for she looked barely ten or twelve years her senior, and they didn’t look like sisters either. Slowly, out of boredom, I began putting together a story. I build it over mugs of coffee drank standing up on platforms of stations whose names I couldn’t read, joining the ranks of nicotine addicts; I honed it whilst waiting for my turn for another withdrawal from the samovar bank. Finally, after a while, it was ready. Or as ready as I was willing it to be.
They really were husband and wife. She was his second wife, the first having flown the nest. Where had she gone? It didn’t really matter, what matter was that she’d gone, leaving a daughter in her wake. He remarried to get his long-awaited male heir, and the younger wife had given him that. Heir to what I didn’t know – something for the second draft, perhaps – but whatever the inheritance here was the designated successor, stomping around adorably in a sweatshirt proclaiming Good idea in capital letters. Long-awaited or not it was clear that the man’s idea of parenting drew a lot from Victorian Britain, in the sense that his offspring weren’t to be seen or heard of unless specifically told so.
But what about the relationship between the wife and the girl that, I decided, was her stepdaughter? Ah, that was a tough one. I mulled options for a while, savouring on the tip of my tongue like aged whisky as I watched young conscripts returning from leave queueing to the loo, entering with long hair and returning with drill sergeant-proof crew cuts. Eventually I settled for armed truce. Daughter accused stepmom of having driven her biological mother out of the house, an accusation I deemed unjust – fade to flashback when dad obtains a divorce as mum is unable to give him a male son. Besides, as I looked at the young mother’s attempts at keeping a neat figure in the dingy platzkart, I had an inkling that, whichever hopes and dreams she harboured for her life, they didn’t include this third-class compartment. Still, the dam held, but when it breached… boy, that would’ve been an afternoon worth of a Greek tragedy.
Pretty satisfied with the story I’d so far put together I decided to listen to some music – Rodriguez always went well with long journeys – and promptly fell into a deep slumber. I surfaced again only when the teenage girl gently shook my arm, saying in a good English that were only one hour out of Aktobe and that the attendant needed my bedsheets back. I nodded and groggily rolled out to comply; that’s when I noticed that the bottom bunk where the man – my appointed pater familias – was empty. Was he gone? I asked the girl, and she nodded. He’d alighted earlier in some place I didn’t know and couldn’t locate, a toponym filled with Ks and aspired consonants.
We pulled up in Aktobe shortly thereafter, again far away from the nearest platform. I bode farewell to the girl, and walked along the tracks, witnessing the dissolution of my hastily assembled cast; the soldiers, the mother and child, the girl, all heading their separate ways in the epic exodus from train 33 Almaty-Aktobe. I imagined a small boutique family drama of the kind that yield passionate standing ovations at Cannes, but this looked a lot more like the closing scene of some biblical blockbuster. Imagining an appropriate shot – the camera, perched on a crane or hanging from a drone, rising slowly over the train and the station bathed in the golden sunlight of the afternoon – I shouldered my pack and walked out of the station. Somewhere near, according to the map I scribbled on my notebook, there was my hotel.
My edition has been printed in 2000 and, as all cheap paperbacks, isn’t ageing very well. The pages are yellowing with the characteristic celerity of poor quality pulp; its spine is bent, but in fairness it was already in this shape when I first bought it; the cover is cracked and ear-marked. The artwork, the one that struck me in the first place, is still there though. A man in fatigues, right hand holding a rifle, left holding his head against the wrinkly trunk of a tree. Of his head, only a 1990s mop of hair is visible. His face hidden, we are left free to wonder what has caused him to lean against the trunk. Sadness, exhaustion, something overwhelming? Who knows. All I’m sure of is that it is the cover of a book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, that can claim its status as a modern-day classic.
It almost begs belief that a slender volume of 300 pages and change, dedicated to the experiences of one Antony Loyd, journalist, in the Balkans and Chechnya, can be an almost inextinguishable source of new insight, but this is precisely what’s happening here. This is something more than a war book, it is a kaleidoscope of views on humanity in which every sentence is necessary and poignant, every opinion bound to generate thought and debate. In fairness, and without trying to dramatise, I hadn’t read anything like this since Hemingway.
I’ve read My War Gone By, I Miss It So four times now; each and every one of them has given me something new. The first one happened some years ago, the book being the company for a driving holiday through the very places where the conflict had happened, Bosnia and Croatia. Of that first read I remember my surprise at the realisation that, far from being relieved by its end, Loyd was missing the conflict. I went through the pages on Sarajevo whilst we journeyed through that city, and I struggled to reconcile the haunted description of the besieged town with the lively place we were in. Mankind’s capacity to bounce back from the abyss was, without a doubt, the most poignant lesson I took from that trip.
The second reading of My War happened one winter. A particularly rainy one, before the switch to the daylight saving time, for both my commutes happened in the dark. There were pages, in the book, written in italic, their subject quite different from the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya: a frank and matter-of-fact description of the author’s addiction to heroin, a monkey that he seemingly could only lift off his back by descending again into the conflict. I had never heard anything as hardcore – war as a substitute for smack – but I had no doubt in believing what I was reading. The book helped me realise that addiction is as much, if not more, a public health problem than a criminal one.
Sometimes between spring and summer of 2017 I had another occasion to pick up My War. This time the trigger was, in a copy of The Times that I picked up on a business trip, a reportage by Anthony Loyd from Syria, a touching and enraging article on the legacy left by the genocidal folly of Daesh. Once home I rushed back to the book. This time I discovered the vivid, cinematographic description of war: the blast of an apocalyptic Russian shelling on Grozny, beating the author through the closed doors of a speeding car, or the heart-in-your-mouth escape through the woods, a mad dash towards friendly lines as bands of Serbs descended behind him in a hail of fire and promises of horrific death. As far as action writing went, Loyd was second to none.
I have just completed my fourth read of the book; this one proved, rather worryingly, that the message of My War is still very much actual today, anno Domini 2018, as it was in ninety-four.
The whole array of Balkan wars are considered in a rather paternalistic way in Italy. My high-school history manual, for instance, was as good an example of this as any. The affair was liquidated in a page-and-half in terms that one could only describe as Darwinistic. Jugoslavia, the book went, was an invention, cobbled together only by the personality of Tito; him gone, the various peoples returned to their heritage, which was inevitably made of wars and Medieval hatred. War, it concluded, was only inevitable once the whole house of cards had tumbled. Loyd made short work of this idea, time and again.
The Muslim commander called Beba and his Serbian opponent, sitting together on the frontline at the foot of Mount Vladić, bringing each other up to speed with the latest from common acquaintances, now divided by the fighting. The Croat soldiers of Vareś who drove their Muslim friends and neighbours to the safety of a maniple of Swedish UN troops, away from the murderous reach of a gang of fellow Croats from elsewhere, crying tears of shame and anguish as they did. And many more. No, this wasn’t a war of race or religion, said Loyd, and I believed him over my history book.
What caused it, then? How could neighbours, people of the same ethnicity, who spoke similar languages, drank the same slivovica, turn on each other with such bestiality? How to explain Srebrenica, Stupni Do and the countless acts of wanton cruelty inflicted on civilians and prisoners? Peddle enough propaganda, Loyd said, and it’ll work. Stir up enough reports of Islamist bestialities, he said, and even the most urbane and secular person would succumb to suspect and fear. The proof, for me, was the case of one separatist enclave, nominally Muslim, led by an opportunistic former apparatchik. In a bid for power he managed to whip up such a terror of the government, whose secular army he painted as a band of deranged fundamentalists, that he managed to get Muslims to fight other Muslims.
At the time of my first reading of My War Gone By, I Miss It So this tactic – throw enough dehumanising bullshit at some specific group and soon your minions will stop considering them as people – felt very effective but, I thought, a bit passé. I thought we’d grown past it. But now, as every day brings more fake news, more Presidents blabbing about bad hombres, more Sun commentators writing about “cockroaches” and more Interior Ministers talking about “big cleaning-up operations”, I’m starting to reconsider it.
Doctor, dear doctor, help me for I’m a graphomaniac. Yes doctor, I love paper. I adore the smell of the thing, the muffled noise of a pencil running on a smooth sheet. In a nutshell, doctor, I love writing. I feel the need, no the urge, to put my thoughts on paper. Doctor, I even have a favourite pen (Uni-ball broad black, made by Mitsubishi in Japan, and to think I was sure they only made cars). I’ve also got a favourite pencil (Staedler Norris HB2). I own two laptops, I can get OneNote on my mobile: yet, I can’t do without pen and paper. I sketch my presentations and plans on a Waitrose Essentials pad, before I commit them to the eternity of PowerPoint or MS Project. It’s bad, I know.
Actually, doctor, do me a favour. Don’t help me. I’m perfectly fine as it is, going through a pad every quarter, sharpening my pencils and losing rubber erasers at every corner. In facts, now that we’re friends, doc – mind if I call you doc? – why don’t you ditch that iPad of yours and get a notepad? Notepad and fountain pen doc, they’ll give you a certain je ne sais quoi. People love it, I’m told.
I plunged into graphomania in my early teens, thanks to two, unrelated, events that happened one summer. Must’ve been 1995, or 1996. Who knows. Enter event one: a book, which I think I pinched from my brother, about the Vietnam war, the title long forgotten. A passage mentioned how the NVA soldiers all loved writing, and carried small booklets, normally bound in red cloth, or oilskin, to which they confided dreams, stories, letters and poems. Whilst the concept of poetry was lost on me – perhaps I’m too prosaic to appreciate it – the idea of having a personal notebook was something I could relate to.
Event two happened the following year, and was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One specific scene of that film captured my imagination, and it wasn’t Elsa’s death, or the adventurous chases in the Venetian dungeons: it was, of all things, Sean Connery’s notebook. See, Connery, who played Indy’s father, had a notebook, a black thing held close by an elastic, bulging with flying papers, covered in notes, yellowed by time, filled with exquisite drawings and containing God knows how much wisdom. Ah, to have something like that in my pocket!
Notebook, in Italian, is taccuino, to be pronounced with a hard c, as if it was a k, and I became hell-bent on possessing one. The price was about 10,000 Lira and let me tell you that, when you’re eleven, that’s some serious dough, especially if your only income is granted by squirrelling away the loose change off a 2,000 Lira ice cream cone. Still, one day, having gathered the necessary funds, I marched to the bookstore of the village where we lived at the time, appropriately named Livres et Musique. Back then there was only one choice, or so it seemed to me. It was a rather serious black taccuino, ruled or plain, its angles dull and a folding pocket for loose papers. The Moleskine.
In the intervening twenty years things changed – price, for starters, or a shift in preference for the soft-cover plain version – but the equation taccuino=Moleskine always held true, at least for me. Each and every one would have its pages numbered with a sharp pencil, like Chatwin suggested (and I don’t even like the guy). With time, though, the purpose of a taccuino evolved. What set out to be a recording of impressions and notes, to be jotted down quickly on the road, lest I forgot them, morphed in the repository of the first draft of all my blog posts. Talk about Lean processes.
Then, roughly two years ago, the idea. Why couldn’t I use a Moleskine to write down some notes on what was useful, interesting or good to eat? After all, I carried the thing in the back pocket of my trousers anyway. It followed that, in order to find all this treasure, I needed a map where, unlike what Indy said, X always marked the spot.
I’m not very good at drawing. I suppose I lack the basics, a good understanding of prospective: whatever it is, I know that whatever I’ll draw will be asymmetric, too baroque on one side and barren on the other. Caravaggio would definitely headbutt me, or worse. Still, the idea of drawing my own maps, of forging my personal guide, was too good to pass on.
Faithful to the old adage “Don’t run before you can walk”, my first attempt was comically simple. A one line, describing the coast of South-West Sri Lanka, and another to define our itinerary. Then a step too far, a map of Nuwara Eliya that I found mildly pleasing but utterly useless at navigating through the valley.
I hastily returned to the very basics, with a simple sketch of our journey through the Pamirs.
Uzbekistan was a challenge. How to depict the riot of roads, alleys and catwalks that made the centre of Samarkand, Bukhara or Tashkent? Draw a grid, I told myself.Draw a grid, use a pencil, sharpen it often and focus on what’s important. But for a few wrong turns, it worked well.
Beirut was next. Here precision was fundamental, especially in Hamra. Roads had no names, or if they had they were known with others. Nicknames, nom-de-guerreor prominent buildings. To hell with proportions, what mattered here was the number of junctions, of roads, so not to miss our hotel at night.
And so here we are today. New maps are ready for use, a lot more than ever before. Some are utilitarian, sketches with the same beauty of a skip filled with old furniture; other are more aesthetically pleasing; will their artistic flair match their usefulness, come September? I guess that only time will tell.
This post is dedicated to Magdi. After all, it was your idea.
Panning, excitable teenagers on Youtube will tell you, is a technique used in photography where the camera rotates on its Y axis in order to keep a moving object in focus. If done well, the result will be a striking photo where the subject is crisply detailed, whilst everything around it will be blurred, conveying the idea of movement.
Now, the idea of myself tinkering about with a camera’s settings is so absurd not to be worth considering. Fact is, you could put me next to an orangutan, give both of us exactly the same DSLR and I guarantee – no, I swear – that he’ll learn to shoot in manual mode sooner than me, and with a lot less profanities.
Still, one Sunday in Chicago I set off with the declared intent of doing panning photography.
Much in the same way that one doesn’t quite turn to criminality by himself on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, this desire had to be born from semewhere. Every fire has a firestarter, and mine was our company photographer: an amiable Scotsman with glasses, a predilection for chequered shirts and the odd habit of calling people “Dude”, due to, I suppose, to an excessive consumption of the Big Lebowski. Anyhow, one day I bumped into him; one thing led to another and here we were, watching photos on the screen of his phone. There was one of a particular American town – could be Houston, could be Phoenix, they all seem carbon copy of each other to me – with a black musclecar speeding on one of those devilish concrete overpasses they have over there. You can just but glimpse the overpass, the skyscrapers and stuff, because it’s all blurred. All there is to see is the dark, powerful vehicle. The details are so crisp I can gaze at the tattoos snaking up the driver’s elbow.
At that point, a small voice inside my head began chirping “I wish I knew how to do those photos”.
So, one day, armed only with a couple of indications from the McDude, a fraction of the gear and none of the talent I set off, stalking cyclists in Lincoln park and motorcyclists downtown. Immediately, I realised that something was amiss.
Everyone seemed to be going too slow: cyclists crawled at a pace that would’ve made the fixie brigade in London apoplectic with anger, and bikers seemed more interested in cruising by than to do wheelies. Perhaps it was because no one wore helmets and didn’t want to crack their skulls open, but things didn’t seem to be going very well. All I had to show was some snaps, still as if painted by a Medieval miniaturist.
Undeterred by the American debacle, upon my return I dived again in the wide world of Youtube, taking copious notes on instruction of youngsters peppering their parlance with adverbs such as “Totally”. Finally, a modus operandi came into play, a delicate balance of shutter speed and lenses. I was ready to try again.
Sunday morning brought the end of the heatwave that had turned the parks yellow and the people nuts. Clouds flew across the sky as if in a rush to go somewhere, and the temperature had turned decidedly British again. Wrapped in a windbreaker and shorts, I headed to one of the bridges that links Chiswick with Richmond, waiting for the great Lycra transhumance that is the London Prudential 100. Because, I figured, if one wants to get the hang of panning, where better to do it than at a race with thousands of cyclists?
And, sure enough, they started to arrive. I checked the screen after every burst, hoping to see the long-awaited photos… but no. Perhaps I’m too fast, I thought, and slowed the shutter speed. Then…
It’s hard to describe the sensation of satisfaction that I got from this photo. But soon, a lot more started to flood in.
Cyclists were everywhere. Groups were so ubiquitous that I began seeing double. Or perhaps triple. Or quadruple?
I moved on the bridge, grinning uncontrollably. And I wasn’t the only one with a smile on his face, or so it seemed.
As soon as I realised I was missing out on the ladies, an occasion came.
Then, sadly, the weather closed down on us. It was to rain for the whole day, a hell of an anticlimax after 2 months of sun.
I returned home absolutely drenched, my windstopper – valiantly protecting the torso – turning into a sort of a waterfall. Pathetic as it might sound, I felt as if I’d achieved something big, something worth making a big song and dance about. Me, the guy who couldn’t take a decent photo not even if he tried, finally succeeded.
Click below for more; if you are one of the cyclists in these photos, first well done! Second, please do let me know if you want them taken offline or if you’d like a full-res version of any of them.