On a square dedicated to the saint patron of needleworkers and television, behind the convent sanctifying the memory of the protector of orphans and widows, Lisbon’s lady thieves are having their weekly gathering. Make of that what you wish.
For being a convivium of malfeasants the Feira da Ladra is a pretty out-in-the-open kind of event. In facts, unlike other such markets where there’s a real possibility of finding the pieces that once made up your bike or moped, this one feels quite legitimate. More flea market than ‘let’s-sell-whatever-we-nicked-from-that-guy’s-garage’.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
There’s a preponderance of minor antiques, books and clothes sold at bargain prices. The crowd is decidedly local. The only concession to style is a ghetto of sorts for artists, protected by a burly security guard in case anyone wants to liberate wooden bow-ties or other trinkets. Few bother venturing in, preferring to stay under the trees to scan the books, the flotsam of domestic possessions that have stopped being used some 50 years ago and the omnipresent trays of old coins.
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What’s worth of mention and praise, though, is the presence of a modest tavern, aptly named La Tabernita. A humble place with long tables stretching into the piazza under an awning, chequered paper tablecloths and menu written on a laminated piece of paper stapled to the wall. The place where the soup of the day is always served with a large chunk of bread, where a jug of the house’s white wine is readily available at 11AM and the view on the ‘thieves’ is almost completely unimpeded.
A weekend away with friends. An April escapade with mates from high school, an occasion to appreciate how much we’ve grown – cancel that, how much we’ve aged in the last years. There were calls to girlfriends, wives, pregnant wives and nagging work emails. But nothing and no one disturbed us at that undefined hour when dinner is a hazy recollection, the beers tally has reached double figures and, on our way to a club… we stopped at a bar.
Oh, I just realised I haven’t actually said where that bar was. How bad of me. Lisbon. We were in Lisbon.
In my defence I have to say that memories of that night are, shall we say, blurred. What day of the weekend it was, I wouldn’t be able to say. Why we stopped there, neither. What I do remember is that it wasn’t much of a bar: people spilled out on the cobbled street. I remember that there were parking spots on the opposite side of the road and that a young man succeeded in squeezing his large car into an impossibly tiny space. Punters cheered him and he took a bow.
We stopped there for another beer to nurse in the queue that, almost without saying, we were diving headfirst into. By that time the Super Bock’s taste – a bit too flat and sweet for my buds – had grown acceptable. Repetition is the trick, compadres. Two of us got the orders and we entered.
The place was larger than a cleaner’s sluice but not by much. And it was packed.
Men and women sat at the bar, or perhaps they stood there. Who can tell. Others milled around, sardined in the smallest of spaces. A few bottles of indescribable alcohol stood on the shelves between the drinkers and the bars, the pumps for Sagres and Super Bock – only them, always them, tertium non datur – standing as defences. Behind them was a hurried woman, busy filling the flimsy plastic pint cups. Above her an old TV transmitted the footie, but no one cared. Vaulted roof, beige; the bar, fake wood; add a tiled floor that no one could see for there were too many legs in the way. Beers were filled and passed on in a human chain. There was a window, protected by some iron bars: sometimes, answering some shouted indications, beers moved in that direction and flowed out the window, into the street. For reasons that will become evident later, I can’t tell you if there was any music. We screamed our orders, passed the money on, intercepted our beers as they crowdsurfed forward and got out.
I liked the place, I liked the street. The clientele was different from the Bairro Alto watering holes we’d pilgrimaged through earlier. The cloud of hashish that hung above the street certainly helped but what sealed the deal was the music.
Smack-bang at the centre of the crowd were a small posse of those kind of guys that, normally, you’d see hanging around train stations. Dreadlocks, baggy trousers, faded clothes. These guys and girls also had drumsticks and upturned plastic buckets. The rhythm, the music, the voices were undeniably, unmistakably Brazilian. I dare you, standing there in the smoke haze, hearing the syncopated rhythm of a samba, watching the crowd dance, not to feel as if you’d just been transported to Rio, to Bahia, on a wet tropical night around Carnival, where bars serve cold beer poured from a garden hose. I felt the urge of getting a caipirinha and a good moqueca de peixe.
I returned to Lisbon alone, to get to see the city in a slightly less inebriated state of mind. As it always happens when I try to find something again, I had only a foggy idea of where to go.
It was reasonably late, pushing 1AM. Late enough for the locals to have left the restaurants and be hitting the bars. I’d been sharing gossip with an old colleague outside a bar in Largo do Intendente, a place where you could pay two bottles of Sagres with 3 euros and still receive a dollop of coins as change. Our reminiscing done I set off, walking downhill past Praça Dom Duarte, the hulking figure of Hotel Mundial presiding over a nightscape of waiting taxis, sleeping vagrants and other shadier, shiftier figures. Bass music buzzed from a club perched atop the hill.
A series of straight roads, with junctions placed at right angles, opened next. I knew where I was going and, before long, I’d walked past Praça Do Comercio and into the neighbourhood. The hunt was on.
Everything was as I remembered it: packed with people, clouded by the occasional tidal wave of weed smoke, plastic tumblers rolling from sidewalk to sidewalk, the bars heaving with revellers. You only had to make eye contact with someone, anyone, to be offered coke or smack. I pushed on.
The church was where I remembered it, at the end of the dark square of a park. The bar had to be on the left and, indeed, there was the street. The potholed tarmac, the cars, the upmarket restaurant, chairs stacked and floors swept after an evening of fine dining. Everything was there.
But for the bar.
The street, alone in the neighbourhood, lied empty. There was no bar, no beers flowing out of the window and definitely no Brazilian dancers. Only closed doors, padlocked grilles. And no music but the sound of an idling car.
I walked the grid back and forth once, twice, three times. I worked methodically, starting at the Ascensor da Bica and pounding each alley, each road between there and the statue of the Duke of Terceira. By the second time the pushers had learned not to offer me drugs: wasted breath.
Yet the bar wasn’t there. The bar wasn’t anywhere.
I grabbed a beer from a stall and walked back. The bar was indeed perdu but I wasn’t feeling bad about it. Somehow its ephemerality added to the charm and character of an evening to remember. Later the following day I’d speak with some of the participants of that weekend, and it emerged that they could barely recollect the place. Perhaps it’d all just been a dream.
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 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 muqarnas as 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 changing. 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 delight 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.