Grounded. I guess you can say this is my status at the moment.
A new job with no duty travel means not many occasions to fly the nest. All there is left to do, then, is to polish up your pitch to see if any literary agent is stupid forward-thinking enough to represent that travel book you’ve been writing for a while and, of course, going to work.
My new place of employment has some interesting qualities. One of those – rather unexpectedly – is its location. You see, I always worked in those charmless industrial wastelands that always see to clung around major airports, littering their surroundings in an unkempt clot of hangars, warehouses, half-arsed business parks. The sort of place where restaurants are few, mostly located in hotels and where runway views are considered a notesworthy plus. Not now, though. My new job’s in East London, in that part of the city where Vietnamese pho is ubiquitous. And delicious.
Every day I commute to what the Evening Standard defines, much to my chagrin, “Silicon Roundabout”. Apparently you can throw an avocado, there, and hit a software developer; yet it’s a nickname denoting a degree of provincialism unworthy of a self-respecting city like London.
I used to scoff at the idea of East London. I poured scorn at the lattes, the vegan doughnuts, the squats and the hordes of fixies. Despite my penchant for checquered shirts – I’m my father’s son after all – you will never see me donning a flannel (unless I pick up a job in forestry in Kelowna, BC). And I’m the first to say that having vomit flowing like iceberg on the Grand Union canal and sidewalks so sticky that even rats can’t scurry around isn’t “edgy”: it’s asking for cholera.
Yet, I can’t avoid admitting that I’m liking East London. I like my morning walk from Hoxton to the Silicon Old Street roundabout enormously, regardless of the weather. It might be just a couple of city blocks as I hurry to work, ready to start whichever meeting is on the agenda for the day, fishing my blue badge (cue in The God Themselves as suggested by Uncle Tony, may he rest in peace), but it’s always a refreshing experience.
Click or tap on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
The ladies in niqab on their Wacky Races school run, piloting those Toyota Estimas like they stole them. The cyclist brigade, barrelling down Pitfield street like the Grand Boucle. The geeks, the off duty drag queens, the Cockney window cleaners and the brickies from Wroclaw, the chaps in gym gear and the fashionistas pushing the envelope way beyond my limited understanding. They’re all there, different every day.
Click or tap on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
I suppose the reason for my sudden appreciation for this corner of East London lies in the fact that it’s unlike anywhere else in town. No Sweaty Betty, no Foxton’s real estate agents, no Pret-a-Manger, no McDonald’s. I guess the reason why I like it so much is because this corner of East London isn’t afraid of being itself. Multi-faceted, chaotic, unkempt, perhaps even grubby and a tad preposterous. But this is the way its people want it to be, and I’m really glad to be able to dip my toe in it on a daily basis. Allow me to show you around: click on the photos and start the slideshow. Check out those guys looking back at me to see me looking back at (them). I’m sure you know the song.
There are twenty regions in Italy (or perhaps it’s only 19; Molise’s existence, much like dark matter, is still a matter for debate); together in 2018 they hosted a whopping 429 million tourists, half of them foreigners (of whom at least three haven’t been ripped off by a cab driver).
Say “Italy” and the mind will travel to the domes of the Eternal City, to the rolling hills of Tuscany or to the canals of Venice. Yet, this post is not about any of them. This post is about a region lying 11th in the rank of the most visited, with five time less tourists than Veneto. Even less than tiny Liguria.
A paltry 15 million visitors graced Piedmont, the land sandwiched between the Alps and the Lombard land of plenty, of their presence; four million of those chose to stop only in Turin. And perhaps there’s a reason. Contrary to the Milanese, ever so skilled at boastful self-promotion, the Piedmontese are a byword for modesty, even shyness. Esageruma nen, “let’s not exaggerate”, is the regions’ leitmotiv. Us Piedmontese are way too self-aware of this, this or this to shout from the rooftops how beautiful this land is.
Monforte d’Alba is your typical Piedmontese village. Old stone houses. Newer ones in red bricks and anodized aluminium window frames. A square with the local bar. A few roads sneaking along the ridgeline where the village has been built, evidently to guard against raids from the neighbouring potentate. Elderly villagers stopping to read the obituaries affixed to the city hall’s notice board. The Carabinieri doing patrols on a Subaru.
Yet there are subtle differences, hints to show this isn’t your usual, boring, Piedmontese farmland – maize, rice, cattle – bisected by train lines and motorways. Somebody, for starters, has drawn the silhouette of a rhino on a corner wall. Then there’s a quirky auditorium, modelled after a Greek amphitheatre. And the view.
This is the Langhe. Eleven thousand hectares between the provinces of Asti and Cuneo, a band of hills in a region that’s otherwise extremely flat or extremely mountainous. Eleven thousand hectares almost entirely dedicated to the production of nuts – Ferrero, and Nutella, are from Alba after all – or wine. There are fourteen Denominations of Controlled Origin, DOC in the Italian version of the acronyms, and more than 300 DOC and DOCG-certified producers. Numbers worthy of Tuscany, of Chianti. Yet this isn’t a place where Sting has a mansion and where IT billionaires have plonked villas on every hilltop.
The Langhe, in spite of baronial estates such as Barolo and Montezemolo, still has a modest edge. Folks, here, might have a private wealth account at some posh bank but will still drop at the bar in their corduroys and Wellingtons. This is Beppe Fenoglio’s country, the gritty, realist writer of La Malora.
People still live here, they haven’t moved out and sold everything to Dutch retirees. They live and die and bring new life in, like the twins that have graced the barmaid’s family, as she says when people notice the blue and pink ribbons on the door. Two men, one of whom sports a pair of moustaches worthy of King Vittorio Emanuele II, chat at a table that is strangely devoid of chalices of bianco. Further down the road a wedding is about to start, the bride being walked to the altar by her proud father.
La Morra is a contradiction to everything I’ve just written. Perhaps it’s because of the majestic balcony that is both public square and view point over the hills, but the town is busy with visitors and modern art installations. Again another rhino, this time used as a bench and climbed by scores of kids, despite the misspelled sign that reads “Sitting only”. Cyclists drink a spritz in their Lycras emblazoned with the adverts of cement makers, postal services and cable TV companies, their expensive bikes parked in front of them. A man plays an ancient instrument, medieval in its looks and complexity, kids hurriedly pleading their moms for una moneta to throw in his hat. Centuries ago peasants must’ve danced to those Occitan tunes, here on the belvedere.
Let’s cross the region, let’s drive northwards. Skip Turin, only a few years ago so magnificent and today stranded in a puddle of neglect by a mediocre city administration that is too inept even to be corrupt. Let’s venture further north, in the least visited corner of Piedmont. Let’s drive until the mountains rise up to block our way towards Vallée d’Aoste.
It’s Monday, early autumn. The valley floor is engulfed in mist and, alas, smog, courtesy of this part of Italy being nothing but a giant cul-de-sac. The mountains, instead, are clear, cool and empty. Gone are the majority of the wandering bands of cattle that have migrated up here in the summer; gone are the vacationers and the skyrunners. The villages too are empty as most of their inhabitants descend towards Biella and the flatland to start their week at school, in the office or factory. We’re basically alone up here.
Yet that’s not the case. A band of horses is munching on the short grass on the ridge where we are standing. Two of them, a couple of extraordinary beauty, stand cinematographically on the edge between direct sunlight and shade, the stallion eyeing protectively his beautiful mare.
Suddenly, the ground reverberates with the thumps of a galloping beast. It’s running downhill, from the peak of the col towards us, the sun shining behind it and into our eyes like a Messerschmitt fighter preying on a defenceless bomber. To fly or to flight, to run or to stay, these are the questions. Unconsciously we crab-walk sideways, away from the trajectory of the tumbling animal, hoping it won’t alter its course to hit us. Blindly, I press the shutter of the camera. Perhaps somebody will find our bodies flattened to a pizza, recover the SD card and the world will know that Sasquatch exists and lives in the Italian Prealps and not in Cascadia.
The llama – because of course it is, what else could it be but an Andean camelid in the Alps? – gallops inches past us in a whirlwind of flapping ears, fur and fat tail waggling in its wake. I suppose that being almost run over by a roving llama is something that can only happen in Italy’s 11th most visited region.
I had plans for more stories from Xinjiang; however, the more I try to put pen to paper the more I realise I don’t want to add words to what I’ve already said. What I do have are some photos. Photos that show the mundanity of life in Kashgar’s Old Town. Somehow I believe they belong in B&W. Perhaps because the normality they seem to show is so unlike today’s Xinjiang to be a thing of the past, of a time where everything was monochrome.
Click or tap on any picture to start the slideshow.
I loathe the term dark tourism. Yet why am I here? I’m not an activist, a journalist, somebody with a higher sense of purpose.
My only answer is because it’s there. Because I want to see it with my own eyes. Make of that what you want.
Entering Xinjiang by land is not easy, but Irkeshtam Pass promised to be the easiest way in. So one day I gave it a go, a thousand of truckers my only company. Uzbek and Kyrgyz lorry drivers queue for days for the chance to enter China and fill their European knock-off trucks with made-in-PRC goods. Bumper-to-bumper, they covered the entire road to customs and beyond.
Kyrgyzstan bode a misty-eyed adieu with its best spectacle of snow-capped mountains and pastures. By 9 AM I left that wonderfully hospitable country; it’d be another 10 hours before I reached Kashgar, 180 kms and 15 checkpoints away.
PSC. Patience, Smiles, Compliance is the mantra for this journey. You’ll need to comply with all the rules, even when they’re clearly pointless – such as the soldiers hand-writing your passport details 10 meters after passing immigration. You’ll need patience, for there are checkpoints every 30 kilometres on the 90-km journey between customs and the city of Kashgar and, at each one of them, the cops will behave as if this is the first time anyone in China has seen you. And you’ll need to smile, even when all you want to do is dish out Glaswegian kisses to the cop who’s crumpling your passport pages and to the Han fella who’s cutting in the queue. I’ve had my fair share of idiotic borders, but this one takes the biscuit.
The Irkeshtam Pass crossing was a day of tension, uncertainty, fatigue and frustration. But it was also the day when I found myself singing Toto Cotugno with Rakhmat, an Uzbek lorry driver. Or when I hitched a ride with a Chinese border patrolman. It was the day when I read a few pages of Peter Robb’s excellent A Death in Brazil, feeling very much like J.K. Rowling at one of her public outings,to an audience made of three Chinese police officers, none of whom spoke English. During that day a border officer called me “No. 1 cool guy”, which I took as a compliment, and my mime antics – how else do you explain what is Imodium for? – caused a policewoman to laugh so hard that she cried.
Kashgar, when I eventually got there, had the longest sunsets I’d ever seen. China’s idiosyncrasies force this corner of the country – closer to Baghdad than to Beijing – to work on the latter’s time. It’s tea time in Kyrgyzstan but people in Kashgar are sitting down to dinner. Sun doesn’t set until well past eleven in the evening.
My hotel is one of the few that accept foreigners and allows bookings online; perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to find. Its advertised location yields only a hand-painted sign and not much more. A few hours of search and I find it under another name and in a different location; by the time everything is said and done I’ve got barely the energy to walk up to the statue of Mao. The old mass murderer is still there, waiving his hand at the electric scooters.
Mornings in Kashgar start with a via crucis of riot vans. In groups of three, white-and-blue Ivecos cruise the main roads of the new town in a cacophony of sirens. The troubling aspect of this parade is that it goes at near-walking pace. I watch them from the stairs of the hotel, cruising slowly, their cabins bulging with cops. I ask the only person who speaks English, a young receptionist, what’s the purpose of that spectacle. “To wake up drunk Muslims” is the reply. I sense a language barrier issue here, or at least I hope there is.
Cops are as ubiquitous, here, as drug ads are on American TV. They stand guard, in twos and twos, at every corner. They walk patrols in groups of three or more. Dressed in black with a black helmet, one of them carries a riot shield whilst the others handle a rifle or the strangest array of tools I’ve ever seen in the hands of an officer of the law: pitchforks, pikes, long metal poles and something that can only be described as a clamp mounted on a stick.
Note the police vehicle and checkpoint on the right.
If it’s not cops it’s local security guards in oversized flak jackets and tin helmets. If it’s not security guards it’s soldiers. They appear in the afternoon, groups of lean men who walk with rifles in their hand and an angry expression. They have bayonets mounted on the guns’ barrels. And if it’s not them it’s cameras. CCTVs are adorned with the same blue logo that is painted on police cars, they come in every size and shape and they are everywhere: hanging from trellis, perched atop a pole, sticking out of a wall. A 100-metre stretch of Jiefang road is eyed by 18 cameras, and it’s only on one side of the boulevard. The All-Seeing-Eye exists indeed.
Kashgar is like an onion. Peel the layers of tall tenements and wide boulevards and you’ll end up with a core of tightly-knit roads; a bundle of homes backing up into each other, of streets too narrow to drive through. The Old Town.
The city centre has been restored, cleaned up, sanitized and that’s for the better. There’s none of that sweet stench of putrefaction that punches your nostrils in places like Osh or Dushanbe, where a skip has been filled with garbage left cooking for days under the sun. Chinese efficiency means smooth roads and sanitation. Even here.
I feared Disneyland but I find none. The adobe homes of the Old Town haven’t been turned in B&Bs or organic soap shops: they’re inhabited by families, mostly Uyghur and Kyrgyz. Potted plants embellish most corners, vines climbing up on trellis. Stickers, of the kind you find in cereal boxes, have been plastered on the walls. Kashgar’s Old Town is alive with playing kids, watchful elders, silent cats, small shops selling household items and tandoori ovens baking the same round lepyoshka bread I bought in Osh to sustain me on the road to here. I bet, though, that’s not how they call it over here.
The problem is I can’t ask anyone. I wish I could ask someone. In fact, I wish I could talk to someone. But it’s impossible: at times, Kashgar feels like being a cop in a dodgy neighbourhood after a mob hit, but with a difference. This isn’t omertà. This smells like something else.
Xinjiang’s Party chief is a man called Chen Quanguo and he’s a man on a mission. It’s called Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorismcampaign. And let me be absolutely clear: despite the unconscious bias of Western media that deploys the term between brackets, there is a terrorism issue in Xinjiang. And no matter how despicable is Beijing’s conduct here: there’s no way to defend suicide bombings or knife attacks. What applies to London Bridge must apply to Kunming too.
What’s different with London Bridge, though, is Chen’s policy. He’s not just fighting terrorism. He’s on a mission to make Xinjiang more Chinese: on one hand through the resettlement of millions of Han; on the other by implementing “Modern culture”.
The pursuit of modern culture forbids Uyghurs to study their religion, to wear a headscarf, to sport a beard longer than the stubble I have, to refrain from eating pork, to go on the Hajj pilgrimage or to give their children names that “exaggerate religious fervour”. In Xinjiang, then, new-borns cannot be called Mohammed.
Transgressions are punished heavily. According to China’s own data, Xinjiang – 1.5% of the Republic’s population – does 21% of all arrests. And these are the lucky guys and gals. Those less fortunate enter the shady and terrifying world of concentration camps that are said to be holding tens of thousands without trial or sentence.
Central Asians are the chattiest people on the planet. I’ve been everywhere in the region, from the steppe of Kazakhstan to the mountain desert of Tajikistan, from lake Issyk Kul to Bukhara, and I guarantee that if you walk through their cities, board their trains, eat in their restaurants people will talk to you. Regardless of whether you want it or not, whether you speak the lingo or not, the Central Asians will stop and chat with you. Their Uyghur cousins, with whom they share history faith and language, don’t.
People around town talk in hushed tones. Everyone looks but, if I put my right on the heart and wish them “As-salaam alaykum” as it’s the custom in the Kyrgyz mountains not far from here, no one replies “Wa’ alaykum-as salaam”. I receive nods, smiles, but no words. Perhaps I’m using the wrong words. Perhaps they’re the Parisian waiters of Central Asia.
It’s at that time that I begin noticing the mosques. There are dozens of them – somewhere I read that Kashgar had almost 150 of them – but every single one of them was padlocked shut. Only Id Kah, the Friday mosque, wasn’t but had the looks and feels of a museum. A madrasah, sporting the same delicate pillars decorated with muqarnasas Bukhara’s Bolo Haouz mosque, lied abandoned too, its courtyard used as a parking lot for those electric buggies that ferried tourists around.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I came to Kashgar doubting that I’d ever see the signs of the implementation of ‘modern culture’ in Xinjiang, but here they are, plain for me to see, in the Old Town. Mosques aren’t only places of worship: they are culture centres, hubs for networks of mutual help and places where the community can come together. Closing them cripples the community and sends a message: the old ways are out; including the salutes. Fear, indeed.
There are no qualms about talking with the foreigners when I want to converse with the Han. Language remains a barrier, but anyone who speaks English will happily do so with me. Tourists on a country-wide bike tour. A bank clerk. The hotel’s receptionist: hindered only by vocabulary and accent, conversation flows freely over beers and shared fruits. Starved as I was of human contact, those moments became my daily highlights.
It’d be unfair to be harsh against my interlocutors, to blame them for the Uyghur’s plight. To protest against the treatment of Xinjiang’s indigenous peoples requires one to be aware of the situation, to know that someone – say a judge – will act on it and that you won’t suffer any retribution at the hand of the state. Nobody in China has all that. What they have, today in Xinjiang, is security and the knowledge that they won’t risk being bombed or stabbed, and they’re grateful for that. I wish I could ask their thoughts on whether security must forcibly pass through the destruction of Xinjiang’s cultures, and there are times I’m on the verge to do so. But then I see the cameras or a police roadblock. There’s a difference between courageous and stupid.
I leave after almost a week. I had plans to explore further, to travel to Turpan; but trains are full and, when I manage to snag a ticket, the train doesn’t appear. Or is delayed. Who knows. Defeated I leave the station after hours of queuing and fly to Urumqi. Mildred Cable said, in 1942, that the town had “no beauty, no style, no dignity and no architectural interest”. It hasn’t changed much since then. Stranded, I follow the tip of two cops and end up at the Hilton, emptying my budget in a town of taxi drivers who almost go out of their way to con me. Sometimes you own a trip, sometimes it owns you. This is that time.
I fly to Almaty. As the plane soars above the Tien Shan I’m reminded of a scene I’ve seen in the Old Town. A girl with incredible yellow-green eyes sprayed water on the plants embellishing a small piazza, just a couple of benches between the adobe buildings. On the other side of the square was a man sitting on a chair outside his antiques shop. He sat with his shoulders to the piazza, the street and the world, his feet stretching out on the steps leading into the shop, playing an instrument that looked like a very long lute. A qomuz. Shoulders to a world that either was busy destroying his culture or didn’t care if it happened, the lone man played his qomuz in an endless, delicate jam. On and on he continued, and on and on I sat there, listening to his serenade to a doomed culture.
In my teens and early twenties this place would’ve been hell.
Life in a tiny village where farm animals outnumber men by a wide margin.
Where the main past-time is to sit down and watch the clouds move around Pyk Lenina, 7100-and-something meters high.
But not now. It’s true, ageing has its own advantages. Such as developing the sense of being able to enjoy a walk in the late afternoon, when shadows get long, cows moo their request to be milked and kids are out playing.
Ageing also means memory. Remembrance. This is the road we took a long time ago, Tajikistan-bound.
Waiting is a game people excel at, here in the village amongst the Pamirs.
But some are still are hard at work.
Village life means freedom to meander about, even if you’ve just learnt to walk. After all, it takes a village…
Dusk falls and the air gets chilly. Tomorrow they say that the weather will be good.
And indeed it is.
Farewell for now Sary Tash. I hope I’ll return one day. Don’t change too much.
What does it feel like to be floating on the mighty Mississippi with no worries but where to moor for the night? How does it feel to be absolutely unconstrained by timescales, worries or need-to? In a nutshell, what does it feel to be living – just for one day – like Huckleberry Finn, the famous vagabond invented by Mark Twain?
On a luminous day in July, in that corner of Kyrgyzstan that lies tucked between China, the mountainous border with Pakistan and Uzbekistan I had the chance to find out.
I’d arrived from Moscow to a fresh and still-asleep Osh earlier that morning. The sun had barely started rising and I was already pedibus calcantibus, like Guareschi used to say, marching towards town. The air was fresh and the only risk was to watch out for the manholes left open along the way. En route I had the chance to stop by a place that I’d seen on Google maps many times: a graveyard of old Russian transport planes. Their sight gratified my aviation geek soul to no end.
Osh welcomed me back like an old friend. A few things had changed – some more new buildings, some fewer old ones, the sad loss of a couple Soviet mosaics of planes and cosmonauts – but, by far and large, the city that was waking up to another hot day wasn’t that different to the one I saw a few years ago. I sat down and made a cold coffee whilst I waited for a marshrutka to leave for Sary Tash; except that there weren’t any.
Still, though few things work as intended, in Kyrgyzstan, there’s always a way to reach one’s ends (this mantra, as we’ll see, will be a recurring feature but more on that later). In a country where every driver is a potential cabbie it’s easy to find offers. After a while I was able to convince one gentleman, who sat on the bonnet of an old Honda, to be my driver to Sary Tash, 180 km away, for the princely sum of 3000 Kyrgyz som, about 40 USD.
Robert the cabbie – Taxi Driver was available on last night’s in-flight entertainment, so the name came naturally – merely used the Honda as a makeshift chair; his ride was, instead, a Daewoo Matiz that had seen a lot more ditches and poplars than repair shops.
Still, we cruised along fairly happily, windows down and faces in the sun. Osh suburbs ran away pretty quickly amongst some faintly familiar scenes, such as the roundabout with the massive Kyrgyz flag, and soon we were in the hinterland, that band of sparse housing and infrastructure that preceded the real countryside. We picked up a hitch-hiker, delivered some mail and dropped off our guest. It was at that time, roughly 30 km out of town, that my eye fell on Robert’s dashboard. The odometer and rev counter were both missing in action but, rather more worrisome, the fuel gauge was resolutely, desperately stuck on empty. Surely, I thought, the gauge wasn’t working. Who, after all, drives a cab on fumes, especially on a 180km journey?
We rolled back to a nearby petrol station, where I lent him 500 som to fill up. Yet, the car wouldn’t start. We pushed and rolled a bit more, to a ramshackle repair shop where a man in another Matiz helped us jump start our car, using cables that had to be rolled around the terminals. We tried 15 times and when the man with the Matiz gave up in despair we tried another dozen times with an elderly gentleman who had an Opel Kadett that, I was sure, must’ve included Inspector Derrick amongst its previous owners. It was all for nothing; either the alternator was dead, or the battery needed changed. Regardless, it was time for me to bail. I gave Robert a wad of cash, he murmured some excuse and I went back on the street.
Normally, in any other country, this would’ve meant bad news. Stuck on Nowhere Highway, a long way from where I wanted to be, ignorant of the language. But remember what we said before, that few things, in Kyrgyzstan, worked as they should but that everything, eventually, worked out fine? This applied to transport too. Especially to transport.
A number of years ago I read of a Russian slang term to define the habit of hailing for a ride on the side of the road. It read something like “Marking at a passing car” but, alas, I’ve since been unable to find it again; regardless of what it was, hitchhiking is very much a thing in the former Soviet Union and Kyrgyzstan was its true hotspot. Everyone hitchhiked: kids on the way to school, babushkas going or coming from the market, anyone. All you needed to do was an idea of where you wanted to go, an arm to stretch out and a hand to wiggle about as if you were French and wanted to signal that everything was going comme ci comme ça. I slapped on some sunscreen, for it was shaping up to be a scorcher of the kind that stopped trains in England, and joined an elderly lady that was comme ci-comme ça-ing like a pro on the other side of the road. Almost immediately I had my first ride.
The Toyota estate was huge and smelt of meat somosa and air conditioning. The driver was the classic middle-aged heavy hitter in wrap-around shades and Tommy t-shirt. His wife was more classically dressed in a flowery gown and hankie on the head. She was the one tucking in the somosa and offered me a slug of kumis, fermented mare’s milk. They were going to Gulcha, halfway up the road and we cruised in a bliss of cold air and functioning suspensions. Even the other lady that we picked up was impressed.
Gulcha, where I was dropped off, was an old friend. This was the epicentre of all the Basmachi stories that I was told by Kudaibergen; today, however, its warring past felt very remote indeed. It felt like a day to indulge in the warm sun and fresh air, to admire the new statues and the undeniable architectural genius that produced a villa with embedded shipping containers.
The wait, here, was slightly longer than before. Cars were either fully occupied or weren’t going in the right direction. Eventually, then, a massive Kamaz truck came thundering. I comme ci comme-ça’d half-heartedly so you all can imagine my surprise when the thing, in a chorus of brake screeches and other mechanical noises, came to a stop on the gravel of the hard shoulder.
Yes, Murat the trucker was going to Sary Tash and, yes, he was happy to have me onboard. I climbed on the cab of the truck, still painted military green, and we set off.
To say that I wasn’t excited was to tell a blatant lie. The six-year old that barely lied under the surface of my conscience was jumping up and down with the energy of a pre-teen that had way too much ice cream and I had a grin running from ear to ear. From inside the Kamaz was exactly as I thought it’d be: nude steel dashboard and everything had to be punched or hit hard to work. The seats could be used in CIA interrogation rooms to add discomfort to their captives and the few woolly blankets – 20% of whose weight was made of congealed sweat – did very little to soften the broken springs. Bottles of obscure lubricants were fastened in my footwell and one had to fight with a manual handle to crack the window down. It was heaven.
Murat, my newfound friend, spoke even fewer Russian words than I did, so that I couldn’t tell him that I was born in the very town whence his Fila T-shirt originally hailed from. He had clear eyes and lineaments that suggested a multi-cultural heritage, and why not: at the end of the day this was the Ferghana valley, where cultures collapsed into each other in a heap that generated violence but also a lot of mixed marriages. Whatever his background he was 110% trucker, for he drove with one hand on the wheel – which could’ve been used for ships – and one either hanging out of the window, calling his colleague, with whom we were travelling in convoy, or scratching his belly.
We stopped for fuel in Gagarin. The town named after the world’s first astronaut and epitome of Soviet technology featured a makeshift fuel station covered in soot, a few izbas and a couple of cows intent on munching on the grass growing next to the only bus stop. Somehow it felt appropriate.
Soon it was time to tackle Taldok pass. The road rose in a series of switchbacks, a Stelvio in miniature. Around us were small herders’ encampments, the usual affair of metal railcar, yurt and vehicle. Two girls howled in the light when they saw that the truck they were doing the “V” sign at hosted a bearded foreigner. Unfortunately the photo was blurry, but I didn’t have time to commiserate its failure for too long, for Murat had decided to show off.
As the switchbacks approached he fished, seemingly out of nowhere, a Rubik’s cube and began solving it with one hand whilst the other danced between the wheel – held in place with a knee – and the gear stick. Doubtful are you? Well, here is proof.
Taldok opened the way to the enormous glacial plateau where Sary Tash stood in splendid isolation. My first pass there happened in sad, miserably drizzly conditions and I sensed, I knew, that there was much more there. Now I could see in glorious detail what I’d so far missed. It was the best view in the world.
Murat dropped me on the edge of town. I tried to give him 500 som, but he just refused as the couple before did, accepting only 100 for the kumis. I shook hand with him and got off, walking through town towards a homestay where I had some loose arrangements that could pass for a booking. As I did, a quote from Huck Finn came to my mind, a line that – when I read it in the original version – took me about four attempts to understand. The secret, I found out, was to read aloud.
Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.
It’s been my hardest trip. It’s the one I’ve been the sickest, the loneliest, the most confused and bewildered.
But it’s also been a source of endless grins, of unexpected solutions to sudden problems, of sweeping views and of deep, meaningful conversations.
It’s been one of the trips I’ve learnt the most from. About me, about a corner of the world and about my own thought process.
I laughed, I worried, I cursed, I lost my marbles and I’ve been genuinely thankful to utter, complete strangers. I’ve learnt that humans can be kind and indifferent, compassionate and absolute cocksplats, interesting conversation partners and extraordinary waste of spaces.
I’ll try to do it justice here, I’ll really do. It’ll be hard because one can’t quite do justice to Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. Not even after visiting this corner of the world so many times. But I’ll give it a go. Later.
Laguna Chaxa lies at the end of more off-road fun, a few kilometres of track dug into the soft sand and salt of the salar. Here there are no bathing tourists, only pathways scraped in the blinding whiteness of the salt and the perfect smoothness of the water ponds in which the cordilleras mirror with such perfection that it’s hard, at times, to tell which one is the real version and which one the image.
Oh, and flamingos.
There are three species of flamingos in these lands, and all three are known to migrate. They shouldn’t be here this late in the season, with winter upon us; but a few stragglers remain, sifting through the brackish waters of the lagoons to feast on dense clouds of semi-transparent shrimps.
The scene lacks the grandeur of a BBC documentary, but what it lacks in impact it makes in its homeliness. A gaggle of pink-feathered birds is ambling about in the lagoon, much like worshippers on the parvis after Mass; some are feeding, others rest on one leg in an act of sublime geometric perfection.
A lone flamingo takes flight in a display of pure, distilled grace. A short run like a Jesus Lizard and, then, up it is, flapping majestically its wide wings before it soars higher and higher, effortlessly. As it passes above us I murmur a silent apology to the entire genus. No, these birds don’t belong to Don Johnson’s front lawn and neither to Pablo Escobar’s.
There are mountains to our east and, to quote Arcade Fire, mountains beyond those mountains. Past the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Toconao (claim to fame: a synthetic grass football pitch so green that it can be seen from space) ruta 23 climbs in leisurely turns before it reaches Socaire, altitude 3,600 meters. A Lays chips flag flies from a pole planted outside a convenience store with the same sense of pride and authority of a state banner outside a consulate. It’s a scene of such absurdity that only a sign warning that there won’t be any phone signal from now to Argentina causes us to stop giggling.
The road climbs up in splendid isolation. We stop, walk and sit on the central reservation. No traffic is visible from horizon to horizon. A couple of rheas, cousins of the ostrich that have decided to develop a striking resemblance to a juniper tree, idle around. Gold, white, grey and blue are the only colours.
It’s easy to wonder where everyone has gone; even easier to caress the idea of being alone, the only humans in this corner of the globe. But the truth is that we’re not alone; in fact, there’s a lot more people and they’re all on the dirt road leading to Laguna Miscanti y Miñiques.
Belo Horizonte-plated Mitsubishi SUVs, Chilean Hi-Luxes and tiny rental Peugeots (whose drivers will receive some bad news once they check them back in at Hertz in Calama) are all inching forward on a rough trail climbing up the side of a mountain at 4,000 metres. There should be only hikers and vicuñas, here, but instead it’s a maelstrom of whining engines, dust and noise. Once up, the rarefied air of the 4,000s is again perturbed by a motorcade of vehicles advancing bumper to bumper, stopping only to regurgitate a platoon of selfie-takers.
Shocked, we double-back on our initial idea of following the caravan and we ditch the car at the earliest opportunity. The air is thin and we feel like nicotine junkies after 20 years of 2-packs-a-day, but we’re effectively alone on the trails. No one, amongst the drive-through tourists, is venturing more than 30 meters away from their vehicles. Such is their dedication to the get-out-selfie-get-back-in routine that most fail to spot the fiercely wild and vulnerable vicuñas grazing nearby.
Drive-thru tourism, we call it. In town seemingly every other shop organises tours and tours will, inevitably, consist of a van driving as close as possible to every natural attraction. I doubt that these guys’ FitBits will get to the mandatory 10,000 steps on those days. Whilst being caught in the high tide of the drive-thru tourism can be annoying, the times between each arrival are blissfully quiet.
In one such occasion we climb higher and higher on ruta 27, sharing the road with a flock of llamas, two Carabineros on motorbike patrol and a small band of heroic Argentinian and Bolivian truckers. They’d braved the descent and now, laden with cars and pipes and other Chilean goods, up they go again, braving a road that gains more than 2,000 metres in altitude in less than 50 kilometres of hairpins.
The road to Argentina is a triumph of smooth tarmac and views so unreal that it feels as if God has given His toolbox to a bunch of geologists and told them “Alright fellas, do your worst”.
Volcanoes tower above the rocky plateau where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia all pile up in a jumble of borders akin to a bunch of footballers celebrating a goal. Peaks run in chains from left to right and viceversa whilst, closer to us, hills change colours with every turn: red to gold and back to ochre. Ponds rimmed by salt crystals and veined with ice run parallel to the road. There isn’t a single petrol station until some distance past the borders, but there’s half a dozen miradors.
Rock monoliths, Monjes de la Pacana, sprouting out of the sand like relics of long-gone civilisations, stumps of columns or perhaps, simply, rocks. Further down the road more vicuñas patrol the salar, vigilant and silent, keeping a close look on us until, defeated by wind and cold, we return to San Pedro.
Of all the traditions of this land, the one of erecting small monuments – half chapel, half tomb – to those involved in a traffic accident is the one I found the most unnerving. There’s something sobering in realising how many crashes had happened and nowhere this was more so than on the ruta 27 as it tumbled down the Andes and into the San Pedro altiplano. The temples went hand in hand with safety exits, long corridors of soft sand and white poles, making it quite clear that this is not a road to be taken lightly.
Every evening, once we’d finished braving hairpins or fording torrents that had washed away the bridges, we end in San Pedro’s plaza. The sun dips behind the cordillera as we sit at a table outside, with views on Licancabur at the end of the road, trying to make it normal to be drinking fruit juices out of beer glasses – no alcohol is to be drunk without eating something, as per regulation. A stream of backpackers parades in front of us; a Brazilian guy, one of those true wanderers you sometimes meet, offers to read us cards in a singsong Italian. His left leg is wrapped tightly in heavy bandages: he was burnt by lava in Bolivia, he says.
The bar has views on both the church, with its un-planked wood beams and thick adobe walls that reminded me of those of Isfahan, and the dusty ATM booth on whose window somebody wrote, in magic marker, that Carols Abreals’ credit card had been given to the carabineros, a testament of Chilean’s good faith and trust in their institutions. We drink our juice pints, feeling uncomfortably like born-again Christians that swapped beer for ice tea, while something – poetry, music – echoes from a bandstand hidden from view by some thick bushes. The trees above us would rustle in the evening breeze, people would walk by hand in hand, dogs would be scratching their backs and the sun would be going down whilst music and words filled the air. And that, we thought, was good.
Our hostal lies at a crossroad on the edge of town. Go right and it’s ruta 23, the lagunas, Socaire and, ultimately, Argentina. Go straight on ruta 27 and again it’s the Argentinian border, as well as the Bolivian one. Above everything, though, is volcano Licancabur.
It’s easy to feel a sense of recognition upon seeing the ‘Bur for the first time; after all, that’s precisely how I always drawn a volcano since I was aged 6. Almost a perfect isosceles, all it’s missing are an ominous plume of smoke, a rivulet of lava and an idling stegosaurus. Even the moon seems in awe of its geometric perfection.
South of San Pedro and its bubbling, life-giving stream, is the third largest salt flat in the world. Measuring 3000 square kilometres, 50 times the size of Manhattan, Salar de Atacama is many things: the biggest source of lithium in the world, a sanctuary for wildlife and a hostile environment for men and beasts. But, seen from above on the road leading to Bolivia, it looks like an immense white shroud abandoned on the tan earth, a modesty cover for something very old and, by now, very dead.
It’s almost a blessing that, as soon as you’re past the bubble of civilization that hangs around the few villages, phone signal and radio reception die out, the dum-dum-du-du-dum of the cumbias fizzling out to static; it’s a blessing because it gives me time to play tunes in my mind. And the music surely ain’t from down here: the thing is that the corner of my mind that isn’t paying attention to the driving is convinced that this isn’t Latin America. This is the Teneré and I’m ferrying the entire Imarhan band to the Festival au Désert and, guess what, they’re holding a jam session onboard.
I’m sure that our choice of ride has a major part to play in this daydreaming. A gargantuan chunk of red Japanese engineering, a growling diesel engine, low-range gears and a roll-bar wedged into the cab: all it’s missing is a sticker on the dashboard, above the glovebox compartment, proclaiming that the “Mullah Omar approves of this vehicle”. My inner six-year-old is ecstatic, and my 32-year-old self is also relieved of the laissez-faire attitude of the rental company towards bumps dents and scratches, which are legion.
The Sahara Blues clues become almost impossible to resist every time we take a right turn off the ruta 23: the roads almost immediately turn into gravel and the landscape slowly transitioned from trees to wispy bushes to just salt. The light is golden, the sky deep-sea-blue, we leave a trail of dust in our wake and it’s impossible not to feel a Terakaft-style riff and rhythm filling the cab of our Nissan.
Laguna Cejar is a brusque reminder that, no, we’re not in the Sahara. Three specks of water lie nestled amidst white salt and reeds, one dedicated to bathers who want to feel like Jesus walking on water, and the others to the observation of a wildlife that, evidently, has been scared away by vanloads of screaming Brazilians. It’s only bipeds around here.
Still, it’s hard not be sitting there, with Licancabur mirroring itself almost perfectly in the still water, and not losing track of time. Before you know it the sun is setting and everything looks as if, somehow, you’d slipped on Elton John’s stage sun glasses. There’s only a few bathers left and, the coast now being clear, a flamingo arrives, scampers about for a little while and then flies off again.
I’ve never understood why people like flamingos. Ugly, odd-shaped and seemingly apt only for tip-toeing on a freshly polished floor, I always thought that their environment of choice could only be Don Johnson’s Miami villa. Yet that single bird, elegantly taking off Laguna Cejar at sunset, whetted my appetite.
If only it wasn’t the wrong season for flamingo spotting.