If the passion for travelling off the beaten path, exploring places that don’t make it on the top-shelf brochure at your local Trailfinders (but, let’s face it, they don’t even make it to the bottom one), was a genetic strand then I’d say that it almost completely disappeared from the British genome.
Fortunately for us it’s just ‘almost’; this is because Colin Thubron is thankfully still active, and also because of Daniel Metcalfe. All I have from him is a pretty agile book of 274 pages with bibliography (thumbs up) and hand-drawn maps (double thumbs-up) called Out of Steppe and many, many thanks for the incredibly nice person who found it in a Covent Garden bookshop that I didn’t even know existed and gifted it to me.
Reading Daniel’s book – I unconsciously started calling him by his first name, I hope he’ll allow me the confidence – I thought I’d found a worthy successor of Wilfred Thesiger; if not for the prose, for the approach to travelling. Daniel’s book is about his gallivants through the five ‘Stans of the erstwhile Soviet Union, with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan thrown in for good measure, but more importantly it’s about their peoples, or the most obscure communities amongst them. In order to tell the story of these groups he, and this is what I find very Thesiger-ish in him, becomes an erudite. He speaks the language, knows the history, has in a nutshell done his homework.
Don’t think for a second that this is an academic book, or some bearded professor rumbling on for ages in academic English understandable only to him and the other 35 readers of his university’s gazette, because it is first and foremost a travel book. It’s lively, accessible, not dogmatic, vivid and in parts outright funny. Daniel has a great wealth of knowledge and speaks some pretty exotic languages, but doesn’t let either gifts draw the narration down. You’ll struggle to find any self-centred rambling or glorification; this is not a book about him doing cool stuff, is a recollection of what he saw and did.
But what did he see, and what did he do? I realise it’s paragraph 5 and I haven’t said it yet. Well, Daniel started off in Iran, after months studying in Tehran (and that as a Brit takes some guts, considering how everyone I spoke to before my trip there suggested I get a bulletproof vest), crossed into Turkmenistan and then visited the forgotten province of Karakalpakstan, the corner of western Uzbekistan which once functioned as the south shore of the Aral Sea. The comparison between Moynaq, where he’d been, and Aralsk, where I stayed, made the north Kazakh shore an Eden of plenty, and made me realise that if I thought that what I’d seen there – the dust, the emptied port, the town of Aqespe being devoured by the sands – was bad, it’s a lot worse down in Uzbekistan.
A little further to the East is his next stop, Bukhara and its rapidly dwindling Jewish community. This is perhaps the most poignant, intense part of the book. I won’t do any spoilers, but the cemetery scene caused me to miss my Tube stop. Following north he succeeded where I failed, i.e. tracing the Germans of Kazakhstan. He lifts the lid on the cataclysmic proportions of the forced relocations ordered by the mass murderer that never got a Nuremberg, Stalin, poking around in the industrial city of Karaganda for Lutherans who moved into Russia at the time of tsarina Catherine.
It is, then, a crescendo of exoticness. In Tajikistan he treks to see the Yaghnobis, the last speakers of a language that Alexander the Great must’ve heard whilst he steamrolled towards the Ganges; he crosses into Afghanistan to visit the Hazara of Bamyan, a chapter that made me understand how Islamists – in the extremist sense of the term – aren’t just a hateful bunch, but are also racists. Finally, as if what he’d done so far was enough, he travels from Kabul to Peshawar, on routes that Westerners normally visit whilst wearing helmets and vests, garnished with weapons and armoured vehicles. All he has, instead, are local shared taxis, something I don’t think I’d ever have the huevos to do.
His last chapter is dedicated to one of the lesser known ethnic groups in Asia, the Kalasha. Pagans in a deeply Muslim country, where a government official slurring a religious oath was enough to cause mobs with pitchforks and torches to descend onto the streets, they definitely don’t have an easy life. Reading this chapter made me appreciate the beauty of plurality and how idiotic it is to proselytise in the name of some supposed cultural superiority. The forced conversions of the Kalashas, the banning of Polynesian dances, the forced collectivisation of Kazakh nomads; how many more crimes against culture will we need to see?
All in all, Out of Steppe is a great book and one I wish I’d written, if only because it’d have meant that I’d lived those stories. If I had to find one issue with my copy that’s one the praises, unfortunately written on the front cover, from The Economist, where Daniel is likened to Robert Byron. Having had to suffer through The Road to Oxiana when I took it with me in Iran without much else to read, I think that the only things in common between Daniel and that serial moaner of a toff called Byron is their membership to the human specie and, I guess, the ownership of a British passport.