Sleepless in Seoul.

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

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

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

Posted in Asia, South Korea | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Autumn in the Heath.

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

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

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

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“You’d be home by now.”

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

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

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

We piled out of the van and walked in the direction he’d indicated. A crevasse, tens of meters deep, opened the flat land. A fissure of biblical proportion had cut through the strata of rock, exposing the layers in delicate towers of stone. We followed with our eyes as it descended, growing deeper towards another, even larger, gorge that ran from right to left towards the horizon. But for a handful of people and some semi-invisible desert rodents we had this Kazakh Grand Canyon all to ourselves.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
It’s embarrassing to admit it, especially for somebody born and raised in the mountains, but I suffer from vertigo. It’s not a constant issue; in facts, it’s sneaky and unpredictable, raising its ugly head when I least expect it. I might be walking on a gangway made of wire metal, tens of meters high up above the concrete floor of a hangar, with not even the faintest sense of malaise, but the sight of the gentle incline that then abruptly gave way to the abyss of Charyn… well, that was another story. Guts knotted in a lump of dread and legs that had assumed the consistency of Jell-O, all I could do was to just loiter a few meters away from the edge, unable to savour it all. And it was with a mixture of disappointment and joy, relief and guilt that I turned back, once we had finished, to the waiting Galaxy.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The last stretch of the road was a civilised affair, straight through a motorway into the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Almaty’s rush hour. As we drove around the grid of roads that made up down town I struggled to reconcile what I was seeing with the city I’d grown to love under a snowfall in the winter of 2016. That, though, was all to come; for now all there was to do was to stop, offload our packs, salute Aibek, mix-up currencies and in so doing give him an extraordinarily lavish tip and, finally, check into our hotel. Somewhere in Almaty, a Kyrgyz man who looked like Admiral Ackbar would be out partying.
Posted in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

The devil’s horsemen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Throwing wolves by the lake shore.

Generalisations are often prone to error and misrepresentation, but – sometimes – they do hit the mark. I, for instance, always attached an aura of upper class, or in other words a certain whiff of snobbery, with all activities performed on horseback. Lancelot, and not the dirt-poor peasant archers of Crécy, rode a horse. Dressage, show-jumping and polo aren’t exactly the sports played by the masses in a Rio favela. That horse-box you can’t overtake on a country road will be drawn by a late model Range Rover. You get the idea.
I’d held this belief for a good thirty years. Until one sunny morning, 4thof September 2018. The place was Cholpon-Ata, the game was kok boru.
What is kok boru? For starters, it’s a game with different names depending on where it’s played. Buzkash in Afghanistan, kokpar in Kazakhstan, gögbörü in that corner of Turkey, around lake Van, where communities from Kyrgyzstan migrated centuries ago. Whatever the name, the substance is the same: two teams on horseback, whose aim is to deliver the headless carcass of a sheep (or goat) into the opponent’s goal. If there was a horseback game that is not evoking images of gentlemanly piss-ups at the country club, it’s got to be this one.
It was with this thought in mind that, on that morning, we approached Cholpon Ata’s Hippodrome. It was our first day at the 2018 World Nomad Games and, fresh as we were, we turned out at 09.00 for a scheduled 09.30 start. It was, after all, Central Asia and we should’ve known better. In fact the place was almost empty, the other spectators – evidently more used to the elastic timings – trickling in little by little, so that when we eventually started, at 10.30, it was almost a full house. In the meantime, we worked on our suntan and watched a few jockeys jogging their horses at various paces.
Once everyone was seated, and a rather bombastic overture played on the speakers, Mongolia and the Russian republic of Altai were invited to the pitch to fight. Please note the choice of the word fight: it’s used for a reason.
Kok Boru roughly translates, we were told, to Grey Wolf; the story is that the game, originally, was borne out of the habit, followed by Kyrgyz herders, to chase the wolf packs that threatened their herds: when they caught them, they’d kill one wolf and then throw its dead carcass to one another, whilst still at gallop. With such a pedigree, however apocryphal, how could the 24 men (12 per team) and horses be settling in for anything but a brawl, or the equine equivalent of a knife fight?
We were, however, in for yet another surprise. Kok Boru is, there’s no denying, a violent sport – it features a dead animal, at the end of the day – but the level of technique and strategy, as we were to find out, was off the scale.
The starting point of every action, after an interruption, is a sort of Mexican stand-off. The referee would choose two players from the two teams: they’d be tasked to pick up the goat. A delicate dance ensues, with each player carefully manoeuvring his horse, within a confined pocked of pitch, to stop his opponent and, at the same time, give himself a chance to pick up the carcass. The referee, stopwatch at hand, is timing them. Eventually, out of this tangle of men, whips, legs and tails a winner will emerge. He’s succeeded in putting his horse in the exact sweet spot: the other player’s moves are limited, and the dead, headless lump of meat and hair that once was a goat is there, ready to be caught.
Yes, but how?
A dead goat lumped on the ground is no taller than 30, 40 cm. The withers of a horse is, well, some 120 cm higher. A rider, no matter how Lilliputian, will be taller still. How can a kok boru player pick up a dead animal weighting some 30-35kg, all without getting unsaddled, or losing his kamcha, or whip, and whilst keeping the other player at bay? The answer was, simply and astonishingly, by bending over so much that the head is on par – or below – the horse’s belly, one leg is up in the air, one hand is holding the bridle and the kamcha is serrated between his teeth, much like a charging pirate would do with a blade. And that’s precisely what the riders did.
Now, assume you’re a kok boru player. You picked up the goat, and its lumpy body is now in your hand. What are you going to do with it? You can drop it astride the horse, across the neck of the animal. Or perhaps you can keep on holding it with your hand (but, mind you, you’ll have to keep holding the kamcha in your mouth, and you need it to kick the horse). Another option is to put a leg over the goat, and ride as if you were a passenger on the tube of a bicycle. You can’t, remember, wedge it underneath your saddle, because that’d be cheating. Ok, whichever way you choose, holding is taken care of. Now what?
Run, Forrest, run.
Each side of the field has one big doughnut of clay, called a kazan. To me, it looked like the head of a large amphora, buried up to the neck in the sand: that’s where the goat carcass needs to be thrown in order to score a point. Sylvester Stallone, in that scene of Rambo III where he played the Afghan equivalent of the game, made it look all simple but – believe me – it’s anything but.
The first thing to consider, as we already briefly discussed earlier, is that goats haven’t been designed to be decapitated and transported at full gallop; on the other hand, it can also be argued that men aren’t designed to be handling, at the same time, a running horse, a thick whip and a dead animal. Lastly, there will be 12 people trying their damnest to stop you.
Suppose that a player, goat in hand, makes a dash for the opponents’ kazan, like it happened at least a dozen times just in the first half of Mongolia-Altai; let’s also suppose that it’s Mongolia doing the honours, as it indeed happened almost every time. The entire Mongol team would kick their horses in the same direction as the one of their team mate (in a charge that my fervid imagination didn’t need much to liken to one of Genghis’ hordes). But so would do the whole Altai team, one thought in mind: wrestle the sodding goat out of the hands of the Mongol rider; failing that, drive the sodding Mongol rider away from their precious kazan.
It was a display of skill like I’ve seldom seen before. Whilst the goat holder sped towards his goal, an Altai team member would flank him; then he’d all but leap from his saddle, throwing the upper part of his body on the Mongol horse (remember, they’re galloping). The Altai would then reach to the goat and try, with almighty pushes and shoves, to wrestle it from the Mongol’s reach, whilst the latter would try and hold it. This manoeuvre succeeded in a couple of times, ending with one player with the animal, and the other more or less unsaddled.
In other occasions, instead, it’d be a group effort. The Altai players would mob the goat holder and the Mongols would do the same. What would ensue reminded me of those rolling mauls you see in rugby, with the advancing team pushing towards the kazan and the defending one trying to steer the whole pack towards the side lines, effectively sending them offside.
It was an incredible spectacle to watch, a sight to behold. Picture a dozen, if not more, of horses and riders in tight formation. Close combat. Dust rises, men shout commands, exhortations, insults or all three at once. Whips piston down. A jumble of legs, horses neighing, all accompanied by throat singing diffused by the stadium speakers. It was primordial, visceral. The climax would climb to its apex, broken only by the pack reaching the sideline, or a horse rearing up. The pack would dissolve, only to re-start again soon afterwards.
Then, it happened. Mongolia’s Number 9 –Nauryzkhan Khajnabi – made a clean break and threw himself towards the Altai kazan, his horse running for Queen and country, if only Mongolia was a monarchy.
A nearby Altai defender tried to grab him, but failed. More joined in, mobbing Khajnabi from all sides, but it was for nothing: he still led the rumbling group of men and quadrupeds as they tumbled before the kazan.
Horses mightn’t be the smartest of animals, but stupid they ain’t. Ask them to gallop head over toe into a hard obstacle, with no way to jump over it, and even the dumbest horse in the house will do what’s sensible: it’ll refuse. So did Nauryzkhan’s ride, braking with his front quarter so hard that the back legs almost buckled and gave way; that, I guess, was what Khajnabi was waiting for. He stood on the saddle and, propelled by the kinetic energy of the stopping animal, threw the goat carcass in the kazan. Perfect centre. Mongolia 1, Altai 0.
The game was over in a heartbeat, Mongolia the deserving winners. We left, mesmerised by the skills, bravery and utter violence displayed in those 40, dense minutes. Kok boru, the legend said, was a divertissement for pastoral societies, but we couldn’t fail but notice how the talents required for this sport (horsemanship, group coordination, the intimate bond between mount and rider) could very well be used in battle. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to think at Genghis Khan’s generals sitting on the sidelines of one such game, choosing their lieutenants amongst the most prominent players on the field.
We left the Hippodrome, but the excitements for the day weren’t quite over yet. A van waited outside, his driver screaming “Kyrchyn jailoo, Kyrchyn!”, the two yalmost breathed and a rich, rolling r.K’rrch’n.we boarded, and drove towards the biggest yurt camp we’d ever seen.
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Be Right Back.

I’ve been in a place where Hungarians dress up like they used to do a millenium ago, speed to a full gallop and then throw arrows into a padded target, whilst Kyrgyz flags flutter in the wind, yurts are everywhere and there are some clouds promising rain up the valley.
I might be a while.

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The 5.29 train to Aktobe.

This post dates from over a year ago. It wasn’t meant for publication on this blog; a book was going to be its destiny, a book on travels in Central Asia. Alas, this wasn’t to be; yet, I liked this chapter too much, my first foray in some sort of fiction, or into some kind of writing where the lines between what happened, what could’ve happened and what I imagined are purposely blurred. So here it goes.
To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers – In fact, to see life. 
Agatha Christie
Unnoticed by most, a watershed moment took place, in Western Europe, sometime in the 1980s. Depending on which side of it you sat, you either had experience of black-and-white television, having your passport stamped when travelling, say, from France to Germany or, simply, you didn’t. I belonged to the latter group: I grew with arcade games, ditched music cassettes for CDs before I had money to buy my own records and, crucially, never really got the hang of overnight trains.
In fact, my only experience of such method of travelling was a journey to Frankfurt, Germany, which I took at the tender – at least in those days – age of 15, which left me, well, intimidated. The journey didn’t go too bad, but the pre-dawn arrival into Frankfurt, parading beneath a forest of skyscrapers, towering factory chimneys and high-rises dispelled whatever cockiness I might’ve had. I stood silently, looking at those enormous structures and their red anti-collision lights blinking in unison. I’d never seen anything so big before and if it didn’t feel like Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City, then I didn’t know what did. Later, in the cavernous hall of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, I stood petrified in a corner, waiting for my connection as the station’s security and punks in leather jackets fought pitched battles on the platforms and tracks, their shouts echoing across the vaulted roof.
Some 15 years later, with only that precious experience, I approached Kyzyl-Orda station, on my way to Aralsk, somehow gingerly and decided to do what I always did whenever I wasn’t sure of my actions: I sat down and looked at everyone else. So it was that, by sitting and observing, a well-rehearsed ecosystem came into focus.
A train would pull up at the platform, not before a copious amount of announcements in Kazakh and Russian were made; steps would be deployed and an army of surly attendants would descend on them, one per car and none of them smiling. An elaborate charade would then ensue: those alighting would toss their wares down the steps and then follow them, jumping into the embrace of loving ones picking them up, or simply shouldered their packs and legged it out if no-one had bothered coming to see them. Travellers in jocks and sandals would erupt out, puffing fags as if it was going out of fashion – trains were ferociously no-smoking – and went on to buy food at the omnipresent stalls, where small ladies with hankies in lieu of headscarves would happily sell them tomatoes, whole watermelons, bottles of juice or kompot, as well as round bread and bricks of cheese. In the meantime those who were joining had started climbing aboard, something easier said than done, for it seemed that they’d all decided to relocate and had chosen the train as the mean to do precisely that. The most incredible supply of things went up the steps, bundled into carry-ons, fake Louis Vuitton handbags, cardboard boxes, jute sacks, crates, nets and supermarket carrier bags. If there wasn’t the proverbial kitchen sink it was because I hadn’t been looking on long enough.
In the undergrowth of the station, individuals whose role wasn’t immediately understandable moved around with a sense of purpose. Men in blue overalls and high-vis jackets, plugged in radio sets cackling unintelligible Kazakh, performed obscure tasks between the cars. A woman dressed in exactly the same garb walked the length of the train, hitting with a 2-pound mallet specific points of each wheelset. She listened to the echo and then, visibly satisfied, moved on to do it again on another car. It was also security central: station staff checked my baggage through an X-ray machine and opened the pack on the lookout for scissors and vodka; on the platform, police officers mingled with the railway company security staff and men in fatigues who I assumed being other cops, or perhaps soldiers. Yet, shady deals seemed to happen everywhere I looked, chiefly under the form of a flourishing secondary market for tickets peddled by a small but admirably keen gang of touts.

Armed with this wealth of knowledge and the experience of another train ride, I entered Aralsk station at 5AM of a Sunday. I rightfully expected to be alone, but it turned out that silly o’clock was a good time as any for Aralsk, with women sleeping in the waiting room under Lenin’s beady eye and quite a lot of people milling about. There was a surprising amount of chatting, giggling, coughing and retching. Outside on the platform, at regular intervals somebody fired a glob of phlegm into the dark tracks, evidently the station’s spittoon, where it landed with ballistic accuracy. Bats pirouetted in the air, chasing the flying cockroaches which, in a bid to save their shells, would dive for the ground where they’d land with a chitinous clunk. Freight trains, gigantic behemoths carrying gas and mineral ore, came and went at walking pace.

Aralskoye more had two platforms, linked with wooden walkways strewn across the tracks. Following an exhortation from the lady on the tannoy, a brief speech that anyone but me could understand, everyone stood up, gathered their things and charged for the second platform. I followed sheepishly. The Aktobe express popped out of the night as if it’d emerged from an invisible tunnel, announcing its arrival with enthusiastic blasts of its foghorn, coming to rest two sets of tracks away from the second platform.
I was evidently the only one who’d stopped to wonder what had led a train, pulling up at a station with no other traffic and two available platforms, to stop exactly in the middle of the railyard, for soon I was the only one not scampering above the tracks and between the sleepers. Everyone else – students heading to university, families, pensioners carrying bagfuls of watermelons – legged it on the clinker. I followed suit, tripping into the flip-flops I was wearing, backpack bouncing madly on my shoulders, frantically looking for the sign heralding car no. 15.
Kazakh trains have three classes; VIP, kupe and platzkart, the main differential being the number of berths crammed in each cabin: two in VIP, four in kupe and six in platzkart. Considering that everything else – bedding, toilets, the berths themselves – was exactly the same, I was booked in platzkart for my twelve-hour journey to Aktobe and, as the matron in charge of car 15 pointed out before tossing me a fresh set of bed sheets wrapped in plastic, I had berth 2 in the first compartment.
Feeling, rather than seeing, my way around the compartment I realised I was late to my own party, for all spots seemed taken. At the top, berths 3 and 6 were occupied by the most monumental case of excess baggage that any airline had ever had to see, including what looked like a hay bale rolled up in shrink-film. Down below, in berths 1 and 4 lied two figures, their features blurred like Pompeii mummies but undeniably human and unequivocally asleep. Finally, in the berths at eye level – 2 and 5 – were a strange chimera with a head full of black hair and two small feet, a woman and a child and, on the other side, where I was supposed to sleep, a man.
I sat in the penumbra on the corridor swivel seat, bed linen pack on my knees, the train swaying and rocking, looking suitably perplexed. I must’ve been doing a good job of it, for the matron came in from the bright vestibule, looked at me and then proceeded to toss the occupant of berth 2 awake with the same urgency I’d have used in the event of an impending shipwreck. Feeling rather embarrassed for the how the poor chap had been handled I mounted what I hoped looked like a morally reprobate attempt at letting him enjoy the berth whilst I settled on the – slightly sagging, I had to admit – corridor swivel seat. The matron had none of it: she swatted away my lamentations like a particularly slow fly and gave another healthy ruffling to the guy who, by then, had had enough of being used like a human tumble dryer and descended from the berth clutching a Coke bottle like a teddy bear.
Feeling like a real estate developer ought to after he’d kicked orphans out of a shelter to build a luxury condo, I didn’t dare looking at the guy. He, however, didn’t seem to be holding any particular grudge against me; he gulped half the bottle’s contents down the gullet, shot a burp loud enough to wake camels outside, pounded his chest and said “Stasyon”. I had simply witnessed the wake-up call service, complimentary on all Kazakh railway sleeper trains. I replaced his bedsheets with mine, found a spot at the bottom of my couch for my backpack, climbed clumsily aboard and was asleep before the sun had the time to rise above the steppe.
Kazakh trains are constitutionally self-catering but for an endless supply of boiling water at the end of each car, and there are plenty of advices, online and in guides, to bring one’s own food onboard. As I woke up and went for a wander around the car it was obvious that my fellow travel companions had taken the suggestions to heart. Compared with my supply of three bottles of water, two rounds of bread and a bag of Veggie Pigs I’d flown in from London, every man woman and child had brought enough calories to give a stadiumload of Texans an almighty sugar rush. Tea appliances populated every compartment, together with melons, watermelons, gherkins, bread, boxes of plov, vegetables of all kinds and cookies of the most repellent colours imaginable.
Car 15 came to life as I did, queueing up to the samovar and toilet; having had my caffeine fix I retreated to my cubbyhole from where I could be a privileged observer of delicate balances at play between the other occupants of compartment 1. Flat steppe rolled outside the grimy window, so remarkably homogeneous that, if it was a looping video projected on a tarpaulin held just outside the train, I wouldn’t have noticed it. The human landscape, instead, was a lot more compelling.
I believed my compartment mates were a family and an interesting one at that. The berth opposite to mine was occupied by a young mother and her 4-year-old son; below resided a man in his 40s and, directly under my berth, a teenage girl. They made for a puzzling family scene, a lot more Westernised than the ones I was accustomed to in this corner of the world, for they seemed a lot more like an archipelago of islands adrift in an ocean of silence than the bustling ensemble ubiquitous in the ‘Stans. To see this was sad and interesting at the same time, and I was keen to understand more.
Mother and son were undoubtedly affectionate and inseparable. She was lean, dapper in a bright-green two-piece house dress, even though the pink half-socks decorate with rabbits were, frankly, the stuff of nightmares. She had a sharp yet beautiful face and stern looks enhanced by the severe make up she wore: two lines above the eyes and dark lipstick. Her jet-black hair was accurately combed and knotted in a ponytail. Her son was strikingly beautiful and incredibly well-behaved: he lived through the whole journey, an experience who’d have brought me apoplectic with boredom had I been him, with Olympic calm, either playing with his mother or keeping himself company with a tiny action figure of a mermaid or a small sketchbook on which he drew the Simpson’s characters printed on his own tank top.
If the similarities between him and his mother were evident, I could see a lot of the man who I took to be his father in him too. They both had regular features, the same we appreciate in actors and models, with sharp cheekbones, strong jaw, straight and well-sized nose. Their almond eyes were intelligent and inscrutable. The boy was still some 15 years away from it, and his father perhaps 10 years after his prime, but both wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a city bar.
The man was a bit weather-worn, with wrinkles around the eyes and hair going snow-white above the temples, and a smattering of gold teeth every time he smiled, but I could clearly see his lineage in the young kid. But even if their looks gave a hint of relation, the same couldn’t be surmised just by looking at their interaction, or lack thereof. Fact was, the boy never spoke, or dared approaching, the man and the man never made any gesture towards his progenies or consort; he just sat on his bed, plugged into a smartphone linked to a device with blinking lights, router or power bank or perhaps both. In the ten hours we were to pass together, he spoke only with the teenager girl sitting opposite him, and no more than three times.
She was, perhaps, the most multifaceted character of this rather bi-dimensional cast. She was twelve or thirteen, at that point when teenagers are neither here nor there, children or adults, clumsily out of place. Tall for her age, with long black hair, intelligent eyes and a flourishing of acne she didn’t seem to mind. She wore a black top that read, in loud white letters, Carpe that fucking diem and I found myself hoping she’d chosen it knowingly.
Were they together and, if so, why? The woman couldn’t possibly be the mother of the girl as well as of the child, for she looked barely ten or twelve years her senior, and they didn’t look like sisters either. Slowly, out of boredom, I began putting together a story. I build it over mugs of coffee drank standing up on platforms of stations whose names I couldn’t read, joining the ranks of nicotine addicts; I honed it whilst waiting for my turn for another withdrawal from the samovar bank. Finally, after a while, it was ready. Or as ready as I was willing it to be.
They really were husband and wife. She was his second wife, the first having flown the nest. Where had she gone? It didn’t really matter, what matter was that she’d gone, leaving a daughter in her wake. He remarried to get his long-awaited male heir, and the younger wife had given him that. Heir to what I didn’t know – something for the second draft, perhaps – but whatever the inheritance here was the designated successor, stomping around adorably in a sweatshirt proclaiming Good idea in capital letters. Long-awaited or not it was clear that the man’s idea of parenting drew a lot from Victorian Britain, in the sense that his offspring weren’t to be seen or heard of unless specifically told so.
But what about the relationship between the wife and the girl that, I decided, was her stepdaughter? Ah, that was a tough one. I mulled options for a while, savouring on the tip of my tongue like aged whisky as I watched young conscripts returning from leave queueing to the loo, entering with long hair and returning with drill sergeant-proof crew cuts. Eventually I settled for armed truce. Daughter accused stepmom of having driven her biological mother out of the house, an accusation I deemed unjust – fade to flashback when dad obtains a divorce as mum is unable to give him a male son. Besides, as I looked at the young mother’s attempts at keeping a neat figure in the dingy platzkart, I had an inkling that, whichever hopes and dreams she harboured for her life, they didn’t include this third-class compartment. Still, the dam held, but when it breached… boy, that would’ve been an afternoon worth of a Greek tragedy.
Pretty satisfied with the story I’d so far put together I decided to listen to some music – Rodriguez always went well with long journeys – and promptly fell into a deep slumber. I surfaced again only when the teenage girl gently shook my arm, saying in a good English that were only one hour out of Aktobe and that the attendant needed my bedsheets back. I nodded and groggily rolled out to comply; that’s when I noticed that the bottom bunk where the man – my appointed pater familias – was empty. Was he gone? I asked the girl, and she nodded. He’d alighted earlier in some place I didn’t know and couldn’t locate, a toponym filled with Ks and aspired consonants.
We pulled up in Aktobe shortly thereafter, again far away from the nearest platform. I bode farewell to the girl, and walked along the tracks, witnessing the dissolution of my hastily assembled cast; the soldiers, the mother and child, the girl, all heading their separate ways in the epic exodus from train 33 Almaty-Aktobe. I imagined a small boutique family drama of the kind that yield passionate standing ovations at Cannes, but this looked a lot more like the closing scene of some biblical blockbuster. Imagining an appropriate shot – the camera, perched on a crane or hanging from a drone, rising slowly over the train and the station bathed in the golden sunlight of the afternoon – I shouldered my pack and walked out of the station. Somewhere near, according to the map I scribbled on my notebook, there was my hotel.
 
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