The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part II

To Karakul. 

“I shall wander the wilds of Central Asia possessed of an insane
desire to try the effects of cold steel across my throat”
George Hayward 1839 – 1870
After two weeks of relentless sunshine, departure day opened with the all too familiar patter of raindrops bouncing against the plastic windowpane of the hostel dorm room. We packed up our gear in silence, the mental images of incredible Pamiri mountainscapes fading into nothingness like a PowerPoint effect.
It didn’t happen very often, for me, to be embarking on a journey where the element of travel itself was the aim and purpose of the voyage; in other words, I had – up until now – travelled, covering road (or rail, or air) with the purpose of arriving someplace. Today, to borrow from an often-misused aphorism, the journey was our destination. It was then hardly surprising if, in spite of the gloomy weather, we felt a pang of excitation as we extricated ourselves between omelettes and sticky jam.
There are a handful of ways to “do” the Pamir Highway, which, as the Lonely Planet writer will go to pains to point out, is “the second highest road in the world” (without bothering to mention which one actually held first place). Real travellers would be working their way up its switchbacks on foot, or would peddling overladen bicycles along its long ramps. For both categories, their efforts would be awarded by long hours spent savouring some of the most striking panoramas in the world. Cheaters will be driving or, even worse, be driven. We were cheaters, and of the worst kind, for we would be driven not by a desire to try cold steel across our throats, but by a man called Kudaibergen and his Toyota Land Cruiser.
I wasn’t, and I’m not, extremely fond of car travel. Granted, there are worse ways to go from point to point – coach, or the Piccadilly Line, spring to mind – but thinking automobiles would inevitably conjure, in my mind, images of motorways stuffed with speed cameras, the perennial quest for a parking spot and the relentless tailback aerobics: clutch-first-clutch-second-brake-clutch-first. This time, though, it felt different. I climbed aboard the old purple Land Cruiser with a sense of expectation, for this was the beginning of a long-dreamed trip, I was in a friend’s company and we had a driver who promised to be another.
Kudaibergen was born in Tajikistan, but had the wide, harmonious features – high cheekbones, almond eyes – of a Kyrgyz, and the serene demeanour of a Buddhist monk. We were to spend only one day together and in those hours he revealed himself to be a skilful driver, a great travel companion and an extremely likeable person but – in that Osh parking lot, on the corner of a housing estate – this was still the future. We watched him inspecting is beloved Land Cruiser and then we set off, southbound.
The hills begun immediately after we left Osh. We drove through verdant ridges, following a valley where a torrent had been busy digging a bed so deep, and with such vertical banks, that it felt as if a gigantic meat clavier had been used by a Greek god with some appetite for destruction. This was Kyrgyz country, a land of rich grassland where herds seemingly outnumbered cars 10 to 1. Shepherds’ camps were ubiquitous, with blue metal trailers, Russian-made motorbikes with sidecar and white felt yurt, the latter looking a lot more stable and less likely to rot, decay and fail than any other implement the herders held scattered around the fields.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Travelling with a professional photographer was a novel experience for me, especially if I considered that my arts and crafts skills were bordering zero, and I was being kind with myself. Apart from the constant shuffling of lenses, cleaning of invisible specks of dust, light readings and other activities too technical for my point-and-shoot understanding, there was the restlessness of it. He simply never, ever, stopped photographing, shuffling from side to side in the car and when windows weren’t enough he’d murmur an apology and eject himself from the Land Cruiser’s cab to pursue the occasion on foot, irrespective of whether we’d stopped or not.
In the ensuing lulls Kudaibergen and I would climb out of the car, him fixing some minuscule part that wasn’t exactly the way he or the Toyota designers figured it to be (I was beginning to suspect, to quote a Dilbert cartoon, that he had the knack for engineering) and I’d be standing beside him, soaking up rain but feeling rather upbeat about it. It was at one such stop, then, that Kudaibergen introduced me to one of the most poignant epics of Kyrgyz history in, as I was to learn was his style, a completely unassuming way.
A monument stood on a hilltop just above us, a stylised yurt with the statue of a venerable old man sat cross-legged in front of it. When I asked Kudaibergen who that man was, he began telling me a story of murder, invading Russian armies and the 50 som banknote; curiously enough, the person embodied in the monument was only a passing supporting actor in this epic. He went by the name of Alymbek and he was the datka or righteous ruler of the lands we were travelling through, which he administered on behalf of the khan of Kokand. Alymbek was born in Gulcha, a village where we’d stopped for petrol, and managed to rally and unite his troops against the Tsarist armies, guided by generals such as Von Kaufman and Skobelev, the one who once said that, in Asia, the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter inflicted upon the enemy. “The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet” he concluded.
Alymbek datka died early on in our story, killed – in 1862, as I was to discover – in a palace coup in Kokand, where he’d gone to act as a regent for the teenage khan. Despite the monument, he wasn’t the one for whom Kudaibergen had the greatest amount of respect. He indeed fished a crumpled 50 som note out of his walled, studiously unfurled it on the bonnet and pointed a finger at the thoughtful image of a woman, an elderly lady wrapped in an elaborate headgear, half turban half headscarf. She, he said, was Kurmanjan, wife of Alymbek. He might’ve had the statue on the hill, but she was on the banknote, and that was telling.
Born in 1811 from a nomadic clan in the Altai Mountains, Kurmanjan needn’t long to prove that she didn’t fit the job description of the remissive Kyrgyz woman. Aged 18, she was given in spouse to a man whom he’d never seen before; on the wedding day, upon finally meeting him, she decided he wasn’t of his liking and fled back to her father’s encampment, near the Chinese border. Her meeting with Alymbek must’ve been more successful if she agreed to marry him in 1832; they still were together when, 30 years later, news reached her of her widowhood.
Normally, following Alymbek’s death, some other male member of his family would’ve taken his place as dakta, but not on Kurmanjan’s watch. As it was shown in a triumphant scene in Queens of the Mountains, Kyrgyzstan’s only blockbuster, she rose up to power, obtaining the approval of both the khan of Khokand and the emir of Bukhara, the highest authority – politically and religiously – in pre-Tsarist Central Asia, who even met her in person in Osh. Kurmanjan thus became general and governor of her people at the time when being either was a difficult, thankless and possible doomed-to-fail job. The khanate – and all local forms of government – were in facts in terminal decline, suffering an accelerate obsolescence at the hand of the Tsar’s army, which had gained an aura of invincibility.
Her greatest success, I was to learn after that chance encounter in the Kyrgyz countryside, wasn’t won on the battlefield. She didn’t beat the Russians, because she couldn’t; horsemen couldn’t do much against European soldiery. Rather, her greatest achievement was to realise that, and to urge her people to accept the status quo and the new Russian rule coming from the north. It mustn’t have been an easy decision to make, but she stuck to it even when her son was sentenced for arms smuggling and sent to the gallows. By doing this, though, she ensured a light-touch government from the new Russian overlords – who, as history was to show, weren’t above using tactics worth of Attila when faced with rebellion – and, in the long term, the surviving of her people’s customs, beliefs and autonomy. Her skills were recognised by the Russians, who dubbed her Tsaritsa Alaia, Queen of the Alai, a name etched in history in this corner of the world.
Sary-Tash is the last village before the border and, crucially, the last chance for a hot meal this side of Murghab, Tajikistan. As far as cities went, Sary-Tash didn’t cut a particularly flattering figure as we drove closer; oa sunny day, with the vast valley stretching as far as the eye could see, framed by the hulking slopes of the Pamirs, the location would’ve made for a more impressive view, but today’s low clouds and drizzle gave me the distinct impression of having arrived at the end of the world.
Sary-Tash: a smattering of low, squat buildings sprinkled across the plain without a great deal of order or harmony, surmounted by gnarled electricity poles planted at odd angles and seemingly without logic. A petrol station stood at the edge of town like an odd gate guardian, two shy toddlers looking at us from the shop’s doorstep. Yellow pipes snaked all around the village, mostly accompanied by abandoned vehicles. We parked under a precipitation that felt more sleet than drizzle, and got out, following Kudaibergen. Despite its depressed looks, I felt some sympathy for Sary-Tash, for I’d always felt some for that sort of transient, forgotten places, the kind of towns that weren’t given a second glance by visitors; I was born in one such place.
Kudaibergen led us to an izba that didn’t look any different from the ones to its left or right, were it not for a small sign proclaiming, perhaps optimistically, “Hotel”. Inside, past a set of double doors, was a room sparsely furnished with plastic chairs and tables, a counter and a few shelves of non-perishable groceries. A shy-looking girl and a well-used menu, laminated in plastic, finished the ensemble. Hotel, convenience store and restaurant.
Over a lunch of manty, lukewarm Baltika beer and tea, alone in a room with another six plastic tables, Kudaibergen told us his story. If I close my eyes, now, I can see him again: sitting composed, hands on the table edge, eyes down, his pile cap and phone placed on the empty seat beside him, a shy smile on his face whenever he raised his head to look at us. A former assistant teacher of Chinese at Biškek university, he’d to quit academia to serve table in Russia, for the pay for professors was only $100 a month.
“Russia was not good for me” he summarised, rather embarrassedly. He’d lasted two years there, before returning home and – stupidly – I asked why he’d done so. He raised his eyes to meet mine and repeated that it simply wasn’t good, but his looks and hand – mimicking a punch – told me everything I needed to know, so much that I regretted, and still do, asking him that. It wasn’t infrequent, for Central Asian immigrants, to fall victim to real pogroms by the hands of Russian xenophobes, even amongst the law enforcement, and I’d just asked Kudaibergen to remember all of that. Back in Kyrgyzstan he’d applied for an American visa, failed, and resolved to learn English. He had been at it for six weeks now, and already he reached a level that Italian students couldn’t even dream to achieve after years. “Driving tourists helps” he smiled shyly at our congratulations.
We left Sary-Tash soon thereafter and I was deep in thought about what we’d just learned about our driver. We took left as the main highway continued right, and almost immediately our road degraded to a hole-ridden sheep track, whilst snow stuck to the telegraph poles like flies on sticky paper. “It’s worse in Tajikistan” commented Kudaibergen, and we didn’t believe him. But he was right.
Two gigantic golf-ball made of concrete, part of an old Russian radar installation, were the partying gifts of Kyrgyzstan. Then it was only the road, the clouds and us. At times the clouds would lift for the briefest of moments, and our world enlarged tenfold to reveal that the road was in fact running on the margin of an enormous valley dug for millennia by an incomprehensibly large glacier, constellated by boulders the size of houses. In those fleeting moments it felt as if we were space explorers and, all of a sudden, the whole galaxy had opened up to greet us.
Switchbacks soon arrived. The weather closed back in, and the Land Cruiser thermometer collapsed to 20F. By now the road was distinguishable only by a handful of concrete pillars placed on both sides at regular intervals, but more often than not I realised that, had it been me driving, I’d have gone straight whilst Kudaibergen drove us up the bend.
He really looked more in his element that he’d done since our departure from Osh. He wore a pair of old sunglasses, slapped in the low range gears and drove on with confidence but not with cockiness. Two of the protagonists of one of my favourite Stephen King novels, Dreamcatcher, had a gift, the one of finding the right way no matter what, often indicated by a yellow line in the ground; as we climbed higher and higher I began to wonder whether Kudaibergen didn’t see the same thing.
A red billboard appeared out of the murk after clearing the Kyrgyz border, deep into the deserted no man’s land. I couldn’t read what its Cyrillic letters said, but the numerals – 4,282 – were unequivocal. We posed for photos, Kudaibergen joining obligingly, too polite perhaps to point out that the highest spot of the road, at 4,655 meters – was still to come.
If order posts are in any way, shape or form indicative of the country they guard access to, then Tajikistan was definitely going to be an interesting place, in the “raised eyebrows” sense of the term. Officialdom, still enacted with conscience by those who saw us off from Kyrgyzstan, had gone completely out of the window over in Tajikistan. Perhaps it was because there were no glass panes left intact in the first hut we stopped at, marked “Customs”. Out of it emerged a number of men, five or six, who had evidently had to share three full uniform sets: one had the trousers, one the padded coat, another the jacket. The rest was made of Adidas tracksuits and slippers. The only things they all were given were the Kalashnikovs.
The commander of the group asked if three of his men could use our car to reach Karakul, some hours downhill; given that he was holding our passports, the answer couldn’t be anything but an enthusiastic yes. Having increased our party, the only other thing that remained to do was to be stamped into the country, an enterprise that assumed farcical tones. We drove a couple of meters to the kind of garden shed that unscrupulous tenants in London would put up for rent as a self-contained maisonette; here, instead, it consisted of four naked walls, one old school desk cluttered by a Kalashnikov and a register like those of hotels in days gone by, a cast iron stove alimented by cow dung and the least martial border guards ever, to the point that I originally mistook them for truckers having gone a bit too feral.
Our new travel mates wore camo trousers and those leather jackets that were the real uniform of the piece of world stretching from Sarajevo to Kashgar. They didn’t share any of Kudaibergen’s ascetic Mongolic traits, looking instead like Mediterranean fishermen; amongst them they spoke a soft, harmonic language that had nothing of the guttural sounds of the Turkic family of idioms. They were indeed Tajiks, and we’d just crossed not just a physical watershed, but a demographic one as well: from the grasslands to the deserts, from the Kyrgyz world to the Iranian one. The language our newfound companions spoke, in facts, was nothing more than a Farsi dialect.
Generation of travellers passed through these lands en route to somewhere and, almost inevitably, left disheartened comments in their wake. A Chinese pilgrim named Hiuen Tsang, as early as the VII century AD noted gloomily that, since “the soil is almost constantly frozen, you see a few miserable plants and no crops can live”. Marco Polo’s convoy marched through here some six centuries after and clearly time hadn’t done the Pamir any good, for he labelled it “nothing but a desert without habitation or any given thing”. Francis Younghusband, the stiff-upper-lipped Lieutenant of the Dragoons whom I was to meet – figuratively, of course – a few more times down the road wasn’t a lot more congratulatory: these lands were, for him, “desolate” and “barren to the extreme”.
Yet, despite a barrel-load of discouragement spanning centuries and cultures, I was becoming increasingly addicted to these views, to its colours – the browns, the tans, the greys, the whites – and its pure, unfiltered emptiness. Buzz Aldrin’s “Magnificent desolation” was my favourite quote of the Apollo 11 lunar landing party; as we drove on in silence I felt I could begin to appreciate what he meant.
A man-made line, a scar on the pristine ground, ran parallel to the road to our left. It was an endless theory of telegraph poles, but what lied strung between their outstretched arms wasn’t an electric cable; rather, it were lines after lines of barbed wire, four deep. More of it was woven between the poles themselves, creating a net, a cage for the tumbleweeds, a wall separating nothing from nothing. It was a desolating, unsettling view under those dark skies. I felt it was a taster of what Mr Trump had in mind, ready made with less than a fraction of the fanfare, for no Hollywood actor had ever protested against the Neutrality Line as Kudaibergen said its name was, being erected between Tajikistan and China. The impassable Tajik soldier riding pillion above the transmission box grimly commented in Russian, and Kudaibergen translated: the wall lied fourteen km inside Tajikistan’s territory.
We drove on through the desert, crossing path with two trucks riding in the opposite direction, our first companions since the Kyrgyz border. My mind begun to wander, playing on a loop the most memorable rhythms from Talking Timbuctou, the album that Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré recorded together in Mali and that seemed so apt for this place, certainly more than the stale Russian disco that we’d been suffering through since Osh. To our left the neutral line continued, impenetrable, above ridges and plains. Then, by a small gully, a gap appeared. Three poles had fallen, their barbed wire netting bundled in a confused tangle in the dirt. This, I guessed, was why walls don’t work.
Karakul Lake appeared behind a cloud, first like a pale blue mirage, and then gathering more and more credibility as the road drew us closer. A collection of ramshackle buildings lied as an afterthought on the near shore, pale against a dark mountain background. Karakul village looked as if a slow-moving monster had hit it, and then spent some time chewing ponderously the remains. Amongst the inhabited compounds, walled fortresses with seldom a window facing the rocky roads outside, lied the gutted shells of abandoned houses: roofs caving in, doors missing, walls blackened by the smoke and anything of value long since gone. Our Tajik companions dismounted and walked towards a military installation, a forest of antennae lying behind a low, sun-bleached wall. Barely a soul stirred around the roads, not a splash of colour adorned the place. Kudaibergen grabbed the steering wheel. “It’s hard to live here” he said, looking into the distance. “Very, very, cold”. We believed him.
We drove to the shore. With the exception of two lonely-looking cows, we were alone. Clouds raced each other across the sky. It was dark and cold on our side of the lake, but the island standing in the middle gleaned in the sort of light that Vermeer would’ve used for one of his paintings. I had jotted down a number of quotes from travellers who preceded us on this route, Younghusband being one of them. Remembering that he’d been along these shores, I fished out my notebook and read his impressions as he stood on the foreshore one day in 1891.
“A terrific wind was blowing, washing the water into waves till the whole was a mass of foam. Heavy snow clouds were scuttling across the scene and through them, beyond the tossing lake, could be seen dark rocky masses; and high above all this turmoil below appeared the calm, majestic Peak Kaufman”.
I closed my notepad and glanced around. Kudaibergen was ready to go, having tended again to his car; around us, it seemed that nothing had changed from when it was a young Dragoon lieutenant, not us, to be standing on these shores.
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The “Frontier School of Character”: Travels along the Pamir Highway Part I


There are many sayings about the excellence of Osh
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, India
“Older than Rome”. “Established by Alexander the Great”. “No, by King Solomon; Suleiman Too is named after him”.
The two youths at my hostel couldn’t quite agree on who established the Kyrgyz town we were in but, regardless of which near-mythological figure could be credited with fathering the city, they both agreed on the fact that Osh was older than Rome. “3000 years old” they nodded in unison.
It was hard, for me, to find clues to back up what my hostel friends were claiming with such vigour in this restless city of a quarter of a million people. Rome, Istanbul, Jerusalem: all have fields of ancient ruins scattered around the modern urban texture, proof of a long history of settlement; here, I couldn’t see any detritus left by the generations of men and women who lived in this corner of the Fergana valley. All I could see, from the bus we hitched a ride on, were plots of land – dark, rich, fertile soil – tended by hand by men in blazers and women in headscarves, and the flotsam of the Soviet civilisation: a graveyard of white Ilyušin airplanes, gutted Russian trucks, an abandoned yellow tractor.
We drove along a road shaded by a neat row of poplars, the lower half of their trunks scrupulously painted white. It was early morning, but already the heat washed the blue out of the sky and blurred the horizon, where the hacksaw silhouette of mountain peaks, as barren as the valley floor is lush, rose to close abruptly the perspective.
We drove past throngs of women draped in long, colourful dresses and men with towering qalpaq hats, looking ageless with their high cheekbones and delicately elongated eyes. We pushed forward past a large roundabout where the little traffic there was tried – and succeeded – in generating chaos. A large statue loomed above the carousel of metal plates and exhaust fumes.
“This is Manas, our national hero”. The lady who volunteered to deliver us to town pointed a little hand towards the statue, now receding into the traffic, and smiled. She was a diminutive figure, cutting a very neat appearance in her knee-length skirt, white shirt, navy cardigan and crop haircut. Her distinctive, beautiful Kyrgyz lineaments are arranged in a perpetual smile, and she spoke a near flawless Italian with only the lightest of accents. We’ve met on the airport bus in Biškek and, upon arrival in Osh, she guided us through the mob of cabbies to her waiting nephews, one of whom – much to my dismay – wore a Juventus cap. She’d been providing a running commentary of the road and the country ever since the van left the airport parking lot.
A rare gap in the poplar formation allowed for a quick glimpse of the mountains to the west. Her hand was ready to indicate loosely in that direction, towards a vertical landscape deducible in the distance: “That’s a nice area for trekking and camping, a region that’s 99% Kyrgyz”. For someone grown in PC and diverse Europe, this mention of purity is somehow surprising; that’s when it hits me that all the toponyms and stories, she’s told us are indeed related or originating from the Kyrgyz people, with nothing at all said of the other communities inhabiting this valley, be them Uzbeks or Tajiks. I prodded her for suggestions on places where to sample the Uzbek culture, so prominent in Osh, and her blankness was palpable. No, she said after a while, she didn’t really know much about “that lot”.
The valley where Osh lied is a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, a wide corridor funnelled through the high Pamirs, carved up by the Communist colonialists into three separate republics, successively morphed into independent states: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Like in much of the colonialized world, at a stroke of a pen the occupying power united enemies and separated friends in the best divide et impera tradition; it only was to be expected, then, if the Fergana valley saw the worst ethnic unrest in the region.
Osh went up in flames twice in thirty years – literally – even though we’d be hard-pressed to find traces of it as we strolled along Masalieva street, busy with traffic and shoppers and workers adding garish ornaments to shops and restaurants. The root of the violence lied in the same noxious cocktail of perceived social injustice, economic disparities and deep-rooted jealousy, whipped up by hate propaganda. In this particular twist of the recipe, the Uzbeks played the part of the urbanite minority, politically under-represented and marginalised but punching above its weight from an economic point of view. From their point of view, the majoritarian Kyrgyz community lamented economic misfortunes and the lack of ownership of the lands they were cultivating.
Between 1989 and 1990 the Soviet economy spluttered, coughed, rumbled and finally gave up like the antediluvian Kamaz trucks belching exhausts on the Navoi street overpass. A fragile economy and strong state security were what prevented both communities from beating the respective daylights out with their cahiers de doléances; when both started vacillating, there wasn’t much standing in the way to violence. And violence indeed did erupt. June 4th, 1990; a rally of ethnic Kyrgyz marches towards Lenin Kolkhoz, in the outskirts of the city. This was an unusual collective factory, for Uzbeks ran it, which probably was the reason for the rally, whose main request was redistribution. It ended in fisticuffs, which then functioned as the proverbial spark that lit the whole tinderbox.
Within a day the whole Osh region was in flames. The police, which in a totalitarian state you’d imagine being akin to an all-seeing eye, broke up along ethnic fault lines. Three days of killing, raping, burning and pillaging – worth of a Genghis Khan invasion – ensued, until an exasperated Gorbachev sent in the Red Army. By the time the tanks arrived, though, a thousand had died. Swift justice was brought by the infant Kyrgyz republic, but very little was done to the underlying problems that precipitated the situation; they were left untouched, to heal by themselves or to grow gangrenous. Judging on what happened twenty years later, it’s fair to say that they didn’t improve at all.
It was June again. Kyrgyzstan was in turmoil after what went down as the Second Kyrgyz Revolution ousted president Bakiyev only a handful of weeks prior; on June 9th it was again time for Osh to witness another orgy of violence and score-setting. Alleged economic mistreatment, past wrongs, cupidity motivated bands of Kyrgyz thugs to attack the Uzbeks, who in turn retaliated or fled to their ancestors’ homeland. There were reports of soldiers and policemen aiding the Kyrgyz, something the government always vehemently denied; however, by the time order was eventually restored, more than 2,000 laid dead in the streets or in their charred houses, and 400,000 fled to safety in Uzbekistan.
I visited Osh almost on the eve of the anniversary of the first riot but nothing, in this sometimes shabby but nevertheless lively city, belied the importance of what happened here some 27 years ago. It is a strange city, Osh: it doesn’t seem to have a centre around which the city revolves; or, rather, it has one, but it isn’t what you’d normally expect, a square or a boulevard. It’s the bazaar.
From high up on Suleiman Too, or even from the Navoi street viaduct, Osh bazaar looked like a post-apocalyptic encampment, a tangle of alleyways sheltered by ramshackle roofs made of coloured tarpaulins or odd scraps of corrugated iron; from street level, it presented a maze of passages, clogged with people and with the overspill of hundreds of stores and workshops. It was a place where to walk gingerly in a dusty penumbra, with the occasional pool of sunshine spotlighting a sack of flour, heap of biscuit or menthol crystals.
There were heaps of round naan bread, baked with a sprinkle of salt, pepper or poppy seeds. There were cakes, sacks of biscuits, lump of dark beef meat hanging from hooks oscillating in the warm air, the comings and goings of flies only intermittently disturbed by the butcher’s flyswatter. There were sacks of black tea, spices, bottles of detergent manufactured by Unilever, light bulbs, paintbrushes, candles and nylon garments sporting all conceivable pirated permutations of the Adidas logo, and then some more.
But what was literally ubiquitous, to the point that stall after stall after stall was creaking under the weight of it, were the freshest, ripest, most beautiful fruits and vegetables I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. Such was the triumph that even the most modest of the kiosks would have mopped the floor with the sanitised, bubble-wrapped, plastic-enclosed pathetic excuse for fruit on sale in the poshest of London’s supermarket. The cornucopia yielded by the Fergana valley – whose adjective of choice by anyone who wrote about it, “fertile” is very much justified – was for everyone to behold. Pyramids of apricots, mounds of blood-red tomatoes, buckets of raspberries and mulberries, tight formations of purple plums and crates of apples were enough of a spectacle for me to walk besides them with the same rapt expression of fashionistas outside a Hermès boutique, or techies beside an Apple store.
We strolled along a scruffy boulevard, one of those that must’ve looked impressive in the architect’s renderings before the cost estimate was given to the client. Behind the trees, enclosed by fences decorated with the Kyrgyz flag symbol, relics of the town’s Soviet past emerged like flotsam after a squall, all at different stages of reappropriation by the nascent Kyrgyz national identity. Neoclassical buildings, their wedding-cake looks and plastering gliding to the ground in large, vaporous flakes, mingled with nude concrete behemoths, big, squat, squared shapes sitting grumpily amidst flower beds, their appearance rekindled by coloured ribbons with traditional Kyrgyz motifs. A large stone monolith stood in a park, a bronze frieze showing not the unstoppable advance of the people but Kyrgyz horsemen launched in an unbridled gallop. A dull façade has been redecorated with bas-reliefs styled on the artwork of the Soviet cosmonaut iconography but, instead of rocket-men and leaps to the starts, it showed men, qalpaq on their heads, playing qomuz and women holding horses by the bridle. Everything was being rebranded to fit with the dominant ethnic group’s culture, with little mention or space for those minorities – like the Uzbeks – that made forty-five per cent of the town’s populace.
A rare street sign catches my eye: Ленина. Even without speaking – or reading – Russian I could understand that this was Lenin Avenue. In the midst of a pervasive nationalistic rebranding, Lenin Avenue had been left untouched, and there was more to come. In fact, at the end of four lanes of tarmac void of traffic, facing an empty square pock-marked with white signs used to line up troops in parade, stood a statue of the man himself.
It stood on a granite plinth so tall to resemble a small ziqqurat, incongruous in his heavy coat and three-piece-suit under the relentless beating of the Central Asian sun. An arm – as wide as a young tree – stretched northwards, undoubtedly in a pose that the artists thought inspirational, but that to me looked more dismissive. In that hot afternoon, Lenin’s open arm made him look like as if he’d just thrown in the towel.
Journalist Tiziano Terzani toured the dying Soviet Union in 1991, seemingly serenated by the clangour of Lenin’s statues being dragged down from their pride of place. Homages to the father of the nation were ubiquitous throughout the USSR, yet – as Terzani skilfully narrated in his Goodnight Mr. Lenin – they fell with the same rapidity of rainforest trees before the loggers’ chainsaws. Why did this one survive?
Perhaps the answer lied in the enormous flagpole erected in front of the waving statue, from which fluttered a crimson flag, a banner that didn’t bear a hammer and a sickle but the delicate, stylised yurt frame that is the symbol of the Kyrgyz nation. Perhaps Lenin’s statue was spared so that it could stare, for eternity, at the flag of a nation that he actively tried to dissolve in his pursuit of the new homo sovieticus but that, ultimately, survived him.
Sunset fell over our last day in Osh. Tomorrow we would leave this city of contrast, of 4G SIM card sellers rubbing elbow with gold-toothed babushkas, of murals commemorating the 1980 Moscow Olympics and Toyota billboards, bound for the Pamir Highway and to what Lord Curzon, India’s viceroy, defined the “frontier school of character”.
Posted in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

I might’ve accidentally found a place I love.

A somewhat prolonged absence from the blogosphere could mean only three things: a) writer’s bloc, b) inspiration gone dry or c) having gone travellin’. With the partial exception of a food poisoning from the office canteen – which is deeply ironic – I can proudly confirm it’s point c). And it’s been one of the best destinations I’ve had the privilege of going to. It’ll be a while before anything around the Pamirs will appear here, because I’ll give my damnedest to do this place justice.

Posted in Central Asia, Tajikistan | 10 Comments

A samosa wrapper.

There are street food sellers on Nuwara Eliya’s main street. If one is to walk outside the market, where the porticoed sidewalk shrinks to the width of a catflap, he’d see how a food cart has been parked in the resulting awning of the street, sheltered by the building from the endless maelstrom of traffic that chokes the town.
Street food was, at that point, my biggest chagrin about Sri Lanka. Truth be told, I must admit that thing mustn’t have been that bad if that was my only misgiving about the country, but I was starting to develop a bit of a despondency towards the spongy samosas and soggy pakoras that seemed to be the only snacks on sale on the country’s roadside stalls, both so spicy to render my mouth anaesthetically insensible to all other tastes for a period up to a hour.
I’d noticed this stall at least twice by the time I’d stopped to give it the chance to redeem the nation’s hawkers. The samosas were fresh, cooked in a metal cauldron emanating a spicy ziff that managed to permeate the air, momentarily drowning the smell of over-ripe meat coming from a couple of market stalls away. A queue of locals was another positive sign for quality, I reasoned as I lined up to make my deal. Fifty rupees, 25 pence, changed hands and a toasty package ended up in my palm.
I moved away a few paces and tried the purchase. The samosa was hot and fresh but, yet again, a bit of a letdown. A roaring dragon of chillies erupted out of the tame-looking vegetable filling, covering all possible tastes – potatoes, peas, even the cooking oil – in a thunder of read heat. It doesn’t happen often to be thinking at somewhere in London as someplace where food is better than it is abroad, but for the umpteenth time in this trip I found myself reminiscing fondly of the hole-in-the-wall shop in Hounslow, a few blocks from Heathrow airport, and of its Southern Indian samosas.
Days later, as I rummage through my backpack, a ruffled square of paper ends up in my hand. It’s the samosa wrapper. Unlike previously it’s not a leaflet ripped from a newspaper, smudging me – and the food – with ink. It’s, instead, a page from a child’s notebook, carefully ripped and scrupulously glued into a creaking sachet, still stained by the oil of its former content. In a corner are a label,“Richard”, and the space for a teacher’s mark.

I remember having dumped the wrapper, for there were no bins around and now, as I try to smoothen it out with the palm of my hands, I’m glad I didn’t. Both sides are decorated with sentences, scrupulously numerated, penned in the flourishing – and for me unintelligible – Sinhalese alphabet. At the bottom, like marginalia in a medieval codex, the unknown kid beautifully added two drawings. A turtle and a bicycle, with ribbons hanging down the handlebar.

I clean my newfound treasure the best I can and then fold it neatly in my trousers’ pocket. Days later, as I sit on the plane heading home, I’ll be reaching for something in the same pocket and, yet again, my fingers would find the half-forgotten wrapper. Yet again I’d be spending a long minute holding it in my hands, thinking fondly of the country whose street food might be a tad disappointing, but which came with such humble, yet fascinating, wrappers.
Posted in Asia, Sri Lanka | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Song(s) for the Road 5 – Waylaid by the War on Drugs

It was meant to be a busy afternoon. I’ve spent the day delivering a course, the first time in my life being a trainer rather than a trainee (if only my mother could’ve seen me!) and I’ve returned to 60 emails that have piled up in my inbox, house chores and, if ever I get the chance, the mammoth task of making a review of Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil that I can find worth of such a masterpiece.
But then I went on YouTube and I stumbled upon a new song by The War on Drugs, and everything got waylaid. Because it’s The War on Drugs, because it’s 11 minutes long and because it’s the third time I’ve heard it, just listening to the melody. Since I’d like you to join my sudden decline in productivity, here’s the song itself.

Posted in Music review, Odd ones out, Random memories | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Rummaging through Sir David’s bin: Outtakes from “Planet Earth II”.

In the year of our Lord 2016, BBC’s Natural History Unit decided to embark on a mammoth project, filming what would’ve become the four, splendid episodes of “Planet Earth II”. Under the watchful eye of Sir David Attenborough crews were dispatched to the four corners of the globe, to bring back the best, most beautiful and striking photos and film of Earth’s biosphere in action.
After countless adventures all crews returned, laden under an impressive amount of stills and videos captured on hundreds of SD cards, external hard drives and even cloud computing. In darkened rooms scattered all around the BBC’s White City studios, producers marvelled at the quality of what had been brought back by all crews.
All but one.
They were sent to Sri Lanka’s Udawalawe National Park, with the precise brief of photograph everything that moved, and also anyone who’d stayed still. Which they did. Unfortunately the results were, well, leaving much to be desired. In a tense meeting held in the bowels of White City studios Sir David looked at the best of what the Udawalawe crew had come up with and declared “Frankly, it’s all a bit rubbish”. The crew was demoted from wildlife to photographing Boris Johnson, and the Udawalawe films unceremoniously dumped in a skip parked in a loading bay in Dorando Close, destined for the great dustbin of history.
If only a scrupulous passer-by didn’t rescue them and brought them to light on the virtual pages of this blog, for the benefit of all those who wish to see what the Udawalawe crew saw in their journey*.
*This reconstruction has been reviewed and dramatised by Are We There Yet? in cooperation with the Sean Spicer Institute for Alternative Facts and Truth Embellishment (SSIAFTE). All rights reserved.
A group of Asian elephants doing what they do best, i.e. eating. All 250-odd elephants in Udawalawe are wild.
Tusks are rare for Asian elephant and even when they appear they are of such small dimensions to make the bearer virtually safe from the poaching that is decimating their African cousins.
The Sri Lankan bush at the end of the dry season.
 A painted stork, evidently disturbed by the Udawalawe team, takes off. “Attenborough will hear from me” she said as she flapped away. 
This serpent eagle was a lot less concerned, though.
Ah, the Udawalawe crew thought. Mugger crocs and water buffalos, this is going to be interesting! Alas, no. The mugger crocodile cruised past and the buffalos remained placidly unconcerned. 
Even the fisherman remained unperturbed. 
Even the pied kingfisher seems to be saying “No drama today”.
Having failed to stir the waterborne creatures into life, the Udawalawe team goes deeper into the bush.
But monkeys give them the cold shoulder…
…and peacocks and deers don’t seem that impressed too. 
The weather seems to be turning for the worse…
… quite for the worse. Who brought brollies and tarpaulins, guys?
What do you mean “no one”?

Shall we leg it like the parakeet, then?
Or perhaps we could lie down, have a nap like the elephant and, by the time we wake up, it’ll all be OK.
What do you think, mr White-Bellied-Sea-Eagle?

Whatever we do it’s better to do like the Serpent Eagle: walk in it with open eyes. 
That’s it. From the Udawalawe team, thank you.
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After the daytrippers have gone.

It never ceases to amaze me how much a place can change depending on the weather.
Take, for instance, Nuwara Eliya: I arrive under a glorious sunshine and an air so gleaming with light that you’d be excused for trying to bottle it. It’s such a pleasant morning that the tuk-tuk drive loses its air of precariousness – aren’t tuk-tuk rides always perched between success and catastrophe? – and assumes the tone of a triumph. Manicured lawns roll by the cab of the spluttering Piaggio, whilst from the windscreen, framed by a benevolent Buddha and a placid Ganesh, I can see a panorama of fluffy tea-bushes.
Later, in the guesthouse huddled on the slope of mount Pidurutalagala, a sunset like I’d never seen before sets the valley’s sky on fire with crimson, red and violet hues, whilst gigantic stratocumuli glow pink and blue on the opposite horizon, discharging torrential downpours on the lowlands, beyond the line of wind turbines. A Buddhist monastery, unseen behind a ridge, begins the evening prayers, millenary mantras culminating in a joyous clash of cymbals. At that precise moment I also remembered that can of Lion beer I’d stashed in my backpack the day before. Things don’t get any better than that, I thought.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
A day later everything changed. I return to town after a day spent through deserted tea plantations, under a sky that’d gone progressively worse, to find a Nuwara Eliya completely different from the village that greeted me only the day before.
The people I meet on the pavements are different from the Sinhalese of the tropical lowlands of the south. Gone are the smiling, soft lineaments that greeted me in Galle or in the countryside. Faces, here, are sharper. Cheekbones more pronounced. Features more angular. Gone are the colourful robes of the coast dwellers; men don’t wear sarongs and women have seemingly given up on flower-printed blouses. Hoodies, fleeces, hats and trousers have taken their place, undoubtedly by virtue of the chillier climate. In this gloomy day Nuwara Eliya seems an encampment of impoverished mountaineers, wearing cast-offs from wealthier shoppers – for I don’t believe that there is a thriving community of Wapakoneta Redskins fans, or that many had been holidaying in Jackson Hole and returned with a track-top to prove it.
Walking towards the market I bump in the first beggars since I left Colombo. Hindu women lie in abandonment on the sidewalk, their mutilations and wounds testaments of a hidden side of the tea industry that doesn’t go on display on the plantation tours.
I visit a liquor store for another Lion can. The clerk’s eyes widen at my request for a single tinny, but yet he obliges. I have barely the time to collect the cold aluminium cylinder, perspiring condense, that my place is hurriedly taken by another punter, a man trading an empty glass bottle of whiskey – some sort of Johnnie Walker imitation – for a fresh one. Behind us a queue has built up, everyone clutching empty scotch bottles. Elsewhere in town, small lines of men in dusty coats and flip-flops line up to do exactly the same. Up until that moment, in my daily beer purchase I’d either been the only customer or been in company of other fellow foreigners.
It takes a while to be aware of it, but at last I’m conscious of how indigent Nuwara Eliya appears. I’ve witnessed poverty before, in the island, but never before it’d struck me as much as it was doing there, insofar that half of the town, seemingly, had a hollow, thousand-mile-stare.
What happened to the city of yesterday? I found myself wondering. What happened to the lawns, the golf course, the horse-racing track that made it look like a tropical Ascot, the rose gardens, the cottages? They, obviously, hadn’t moved overnight (nor I had dreamt them). They still were where I’d left them, including the football ground where, often, matches were interrupted by peaceful invasions of grazing horses.
So what was it, then? It hung there on the tip of my mind’s tongue, like a difficult word. Then, as I was walking past the Catholic church, it struck me. A veil of sadness hung above the town like an impalpable mosquito net, weighting unseen on the cottages and bungalows. Was it the nostalgia for those long-gone times, the feeling that Charlton Heston must’ve felt upon discovering that the Planet of the Apes was indeed future Earth?
No, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be a longing for a distant past I reasoned, because everything here – cottages, post office, the damned hotel where they still insist on doing high tea, the monument to the glorious (white) dead – was an imposture or, to say it like an American, a fraud.
All these legacies of an Anglo-Saxon past, this flotsam of little England washed up in the Sinhalese highlands, shouldn’t be here. Nuwara Eliya didn’t exist prior to the arrival of one Samuel Baker who turned this valley in an amusement park built to cure the colonialists’ homesickness. To buoy the British’s spirits, sapped by the tropical heat of the plains, this whole valley was razed, buildings erected and whole communities moved from southern India, to work in the plantations and in the stately mansions of landowners. What remains now, after the colonialists’ departure, are hollow traditions, communities uprooted from their ancestral lands, a Euro Disney whose planeloads of daytrippers have ceased to arrive and where stray dogs sleep on the putting green.
Then the sky cleared in time for the setting sun to set the valley on fire again, as the Buddhist choirs resumed again. As if they were having the last laugh.

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Going into the country.

One Greg Anderson, whose biographical info I could find identified him as being “American” and an “author”, apparently is the father of the quote, dear to all those who use and abuse of the word “wanderlust”, “Concentrate on the journey, not the destination”.
On a balmy day of March, some five kilometers north of the small town of Ahangama, I decided to take heed to Mr Anderson’s advice and to concentrate on the journey.
There is a small tea plantation in this side of Sri Lanka that gently declines towards the sea, far away from the more orthodox tea environment of the Hill Country. It is a quaint little affair that offers tours and cakes for free, and is eagerly assaulted by throngs of Buryats, Kazakhs and other Central Asian peoples, looking exotic in their white robes and headscarves against the tropical vegetation. Most visitors, myself included, reach it by means of vans, or tuk-tuks, speeding past a scene of pure tropical idyll. On the way back, I chose not to do the same.
It was a sweaty hour to Ahangama, an excursion that ended with the inevitable sunburnt neck and perspired shirt, but the rewards for following Mr Anderson’s advice were amongst the most precious of my journey in Sri Lanka.
A dirt road unwinds through the gardens. The red earth reminds of Africa and of Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Tombs crop up unexpectedly. An overgrown clearing in the forest holds a handful of sepulchres, forgotten by the locals.

It’s easy to feel like a visiting politician, on the road to Ahangama. Everyone – man, woman, youth, toddler – will wave and say hello to you. Since I was too busy waving back, I’ve always got the moment before or the one after the wave.

I’d always wondered why Asian tourists, on hot days, strolled under open umbrellas. As I felt my neck starting to glow red I suddenly got why.

Lacking a brolly, water buffalos hang all day in mud pools, with a spotless egret for company.

At a roadside workshop, a game awaits whilst punters have taken a break to do some work – namely, turning some fish left to dry.

Reaching the perfect balance between speed, cooling breeze and effort. Nirvana can be found on the road to Ahangama.

Talking about Nirvana…

The only tuk-tuk that didn’t offer us a ride. Probably because they were too busy enjoying the day themselves.

Rice paddies appear and vanish in the bush, on the road to Ahangama.

Posted in Asia, Overlooked locations, Sri Lanka | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Where kites fly above the fort.

I often think that I’d have been a Portuguese explorer.
This isn’t because of an unquenchable thirst for boot, a penchant for ending up chewed by unfriendly natives, or an interest in being consumed by hideous tropical diseases; rather, it’s because a fair share of those places that I find most aesthetically pleasing, or well placed in the wider landscape, turn out to have been either established, discovered or colonised by those enterprising seafarers. Think Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia, Muscat, Zanzibar, Goa.
It’s a mere klick from the train station to the guesthouse, past the isthmus that leads into the Fort and through the gate, but by the time I get to the coveted entrance I’ve turned into a fountain of sweat. Rivulets flow happily down my back, hard-pressed against the rucksack, and many more are flowing happily down my forehead, above the brows and straight into my eyes. It’s murderously hot in Galle and I’ve chosen to do my walk smack in the middle of the day. Only mad dogs, Englishmen and Italians with backpacks, said Noël Coward.
Heat notwithstanding, Galle welcomes us with its best clothes. The earthworks of Rampart street, built by the Dutch once they’d chased the Portuguese away, are hemming with life. Local families gather on the grassy hills to raise multitude of kites in the warm air, driving the hand-made rhomboids of wood and plastic to vertiginous heights, sustained by the trade winds. Youths in their school uniforms – the girls’ Buddhist school, the boys’, the Methodists, the Madrasah – run around holding the rolls of twine, or mingle on the watchtowers where, for centuries, the VOC men stood watch. A large water monitor strolls in the grass, prehistoric in his aplomb.
Walking the streets of Galle feels like drifting slowly into the warm pool of history. There’s almost nothing – a Buddhist school and shrine, the habit of collecting frangipani flowers in water bowls – to rekindle the Asian past of this city. The Chinese eunuch general Zeng He dropped anchor here, leading in 1409 a fleet whose ships were longer than Columbus’ three caravels combined, but of his passage nothing remains, its commemorative stele now resting behind a glass in a Colombo museum.
click on the photos to start the slideshow.
The next visitors were more persistent, and left a legacy made of flesh and bone as well as of faith. Arab traders lived for long in the city that Ibn Battuta called Qali, making good business shifting India’s riches and Africa’s slaves. Their permanence left behind a community of Sri Lankan Moors, ascetic in their white dishdashs, of mosques and madrasahs standing next to statues of the Buddha and reformed churches.
Those who built Protestant temples were the flag-bearers of modernity. They didn’t represent a king, a religion or an ethnicity. The drape they unfurled above the city and that they chiselled over the Fort’s entrance wasn’t a nation’s, it was a company’s. The Dutch men of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie didn’t make landfall in 1640 to claim Galle for king and country, but for their shareholders in Amsterdam.
The VOC men built a massive fort to ensure that no one did to them what they did to the Portuguese and, within the safety of these ramparts, begun laying down a neat grid of streets, harmonious mansions, churches and stocky warehouses that stand to this day with their porticoes, verandas and wide windows.
They were, however, catastrophically ill suited for the tropical climate of the island. Unlike Calcutta, there’s no neoclassical cemetery where to read their names and stories, but the very fact that their largest building is a hospital speaks volumes. It’s hard to say how effective this place, where now I sit before a plate of shrimp and a beer, must’ve been in an age that predated antibiotics, sterilization or the mere understanding of bacterial infections.
Fort or no fort, eventually the VOC were driven out, here as elsewhere. In true Darwinist fashion they were given the boot by something bigger and, ultimately, more successful than them: the British Empire.
A building, empty but for a chair left in the doorway for a long-gone guardian, is a window on that past, with a brass Lloyd’s plaque and a blackboard used to track the comings and goings of merchant vessels in this old outpost of the age of commerce. I fantasize about that time, a time of clippers and steamboats, a time of lonely Company reps, the time when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of enterprising youths seeking free deck passage to the tropics in exchange for labour on board. It feels long gone and the empty board confirms it; the present, with the KPMG office open and active well after sunset, doesn’t seem as enticing at all.
Sun falls behind the ramparts. The kites have gone, minus a handful that must’ve escaped their owners. The sky is turning the sort of crimson that I’d only seen on glossy magazines, expertly enhanced with some post-production software. Here, instead, it is real and everything – the sea, the ramparts, the whitewashed villas, frangipani flowers – is bathed in an unreal purple light, as if somebody had sprayed potassium permanganate on every surface.
Tourists and locals sit on the earthworks, witnesses of the spectacular end of yet another day in Galle. Amongst those posing for selfies or indulging in a last dip, and between contemplative dogs a group of men stands still, towering in their caftans and skullcaps. The horizon is a violet of almost painful beauty now, whilst – higher up – the vault of the sky is already a succession of indigo and blue. Standing against this backdrop the men are eerily strange and mysterious, all facing towards the sunset as if they were waiting for someone, or something, to come out of the horizon. In the quiet of the evening I can only hear one of them speaking – leading some sort of ancestral prayer, perhaps – but it’s only when I get closer that I notice the telescopes, and I understand that he’s teaching astronomy.
Enraptured, his students follow his lead, raising their left hands to their eyes, fingers arranged as if they wished to show a dog in a spectacle of Chinese shadows, but in reality gauging the elevation of some celestial object – Venus, I think – that has just risen into the night sky. Not unlike, I realise as the sun finally disappears behind the Earth’s curvature and a warm night descends on Galle, their ancestors and Ibn Battuta did seven centuries ago.

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Sri Lankan trains.

To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers – In fact, to see life 
Agatha Christie
There’s something special about the very act of boarding a train. For starters, it’s a lot easier than doing the same with an airplane. With a few notable exceptions, train travelling is mercifully free from the shackles of security checks, those Caudine Forks of metal detectors, body scanners, pat-downs and X-ray machines. Stations don’t require the same amount of loitering and walking that airports do, and once you’re onboard it’s a lot more civilised.
There are ample windows, comfortable seats and space to move about as you pull out of the station, cruising through an inevitably uninviting panorama of unkempt buildings, peeling warehouses and industrial estates, because which council would spend money to beautify corners of the city that can only be seen from the tracks? Then you’re out of the city, into the countryside, and the beauty of train travelling is immediate: the whole world is there, starting outside your window. There aren’t multiple lanes of tarmac, guard-rails and concrete; fields, woods and mountains start where your tracks end.
It’s because of this proximity to the world that you are excited to be standing by the entrance of Colombo Fort station, a small pink cardboard token in your hand – your second-class ticket to Galle.
Under the corrugated iron roof old trains come and go with their cargo of commuters, long distance travellers and tourists. A man in a djellaba walks fast behind a Buddhist monk wrapped in his orange robes; a nun trails in the crowd.
An old man approaches you; he’s trying to sell you a bed in his guest-house, but you’ve already got accommodation for the night. Still, he’s a pleasant interlocutor, happy to do some small talk about his experience as a gastarbeiter in Switzerland. He lists cities, towns and hamlets he visited in Italy, before confessing his love for Catanzaro, a place in Calabria that isn’t exactly amongst Italy’s finest. Yet, Catanzaro must be holding a place in his heart, for he returns to it times and again. His village, his guest-house: both are beautiful, “belle come Catanzaro”.
Your train is a far cry from those sleek, modern concoctions that run at breakneck speed in Europe, Japan or China, but it doesn’t matter; you’re not here to go places quickly, you’re here for the journey.
The windows are open to let in torrents of light, scents and noise. Travellers sit in the vestibule, their legs dangling out of the doorways as we roll out of the Fort, past the port, Buddhist temples, skyscrapers and a plethora of driftwood huts. Quarters of the recently urbanised, these slums seem to converge around the railway tracks, a long streak of detritus left in the big city’s wake.
Even here, however, there’s beauty to be found. In spite of the dust and of the fumes of waste set ablaze, frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea bloom; then, the further we go away from the city the less visible civilisation’s side effects are.
The train runs parallel to the sea, sometimes a mere handful of meters away from the shore line, swerving to the side to dive into woods of banana trees, cypresses and bulbous, vine-covered tropical trees. Villages appear and then rush back into hiding, fleeting impressions of thatched roofs, catch of the day left to dry in the sun and corner shops advertising crackers and brews. Youths play cricket next to the stations before an audience sat in their tuk-tuks.

You pass Ambalangoda and suddenly you remember something you’d read on Wikipedia, one night prior to leaving for here. This is where train No. 50, the same Matara Express you’re riding on, could’ve been stopped on December 26th 2004, but couldn’t. The convoy continued his journey south, hitting the Boxing day tsunami soon afterwards. 1,700 died. You seem the only one thinking about this in the carriage; the rest of your fellow travellers are dozing or watching the world going by. A man sits by himself, a copy of the “Private Eye” open in front of him. It’s strange to be seeing satire on Theresa May in the tropics.

Hawkers descend on the train at every station, patrolling the aisles with baskets of fried skewers, fresh apples, pineapples and colouring books. Beggars also come aboard, hobbling through the cars with their wounds exposed: stumps, crushed arms and hands. Suddenly, amongst all this, there’s a bend and the lines of trees recede to the margins of your field of view; a clearing replaces them, with a bundle of tracks leading to derelict warehouses. You’ve reached Galle.
You rejoin the train in Ella, and it feels like finding a long-lost friend. After days spent in noisy, dusty bus stations or on wobbly coaches, squeezed into tiny seats, hammered by relentless Indian pop blasted out of Pioneer speakers, Ella station – with its blackboard, hand-written signs, manicured rose gardens and attendants in white uniforms – is a welcome return to a more civilised way of travelling.
It’s the journey of a lifetime. This railway took the best part of 70 years to be laid down, and it’s easy to see why. It either kisses the rock walls of a cliff, or tiptoes on the edge of a precipice. There are bends so narrow that you can see the first and last cars at once, and tunnels so tight that you got to keep an eye on snoozing girls to ensure that they don’t stick their heads too far out of the windows.

Outside, the Hill Country rolls by. Tea plantations introduced by the British colonialists dominate the landscape, interspersed with Hindu shrines. Buddhist domes emerge out of the woods, where the gradient was too steep even for the hard-headed thirst for economic gain of the planters.
It’s a long journey, the one from Hill Country to the capital and it doesn’t take long before you start to get to know your fellow travellers, even without speaking to them. There’s the tourist contingent, dispersed on a normal distribution of sunburns and selfishness; on one end there’s the Japanese lady who offers to cradle the howling toddler of a stressed young couple, on the other the hipster who brings a surfboard to the mountains and blocks the overhead compartments with it.
There are kids, and the Sinhalese mum and daughter duo; the older snoozes, the younger smiles at the TV show on her tablet, only to reprimand her mother when, once awake, she casually litters from the window. There’s the man travelling alone by the window, a sad look on his face. You might be wrong, but you’ve seen those eyes before, in your own image reflexed in a mirror. It’s the look you have when you leave home, the one you’ve dubbed “the émigré’s stare”.
It’s late by the time you return to Colombo. Dusk falls whilst you’re still far from Fort, somewhere along the suburban lines that rattle past you, laden with commuters. A downpour has just ended and everything glows with the crimson light that, you’ve learned by now, is the trademark of Sri Lankan sunsets. Your train’s been stuck there for some time, so you stick your head out of the window in the hope of understanding what the hold-up is. All in vain.
A man with an umbrella walks on the tracks in your opposite direction. You look at him and then you see another head, another pair of eyes, sticking outside the window of the next car. Your eyes meet, and you smile at each other.

It’s true: to travel by train is to see life.
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