The TsUM Magazin on Rudaki was rumoured, according to the chit-chat in the hostel, to be unbeatable in Dušanbe for Soviet tat, but once we’d gotten there it was pretty hard to figure out why. Ground floor was packed to the gunwales with stalls peddling mobile phones and associated paraphernalia, whilst the first floor, up a flight of stairs that reminded me of my elementary school’s building, traded in mildly repulsive wedding dresses. A young mother begged on the corridor, accepting the round bread I’d just bought in the bazaar.
The promised land of the hammer and sickle was indeed there, but took a while to be found. Sandwiched between a shop selling gaudy rugs and another doing a relatively modest trade in authentic, fake La-Z-Boy chairs was what we wanted to come and see. Memorabilia from the so-called Empire of Evil.
Austin to Houston, the satnav chirped, was 187 miles. Make it 200, I thought knowing my penchant for cocking it up even when tasked with the relatively simple job of following an arrow without crashing into other people or stationary objects. Four hundred miles return, a relatively long day on the road but one that, at least for me, was worth it.
Based on a body of evidence constituted by the film “Hell or High Water” and not much else, I expected Texas to be looking not too differently from the Kazakh steppe, save for the occasional oil pump jack taking another sip of crude and Ford pick-ups in lieu of Toyota Land Cruisers. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. The I-10 sneaked through hills carpeted with gnarled and twisty oaks, peppered with ranches, Methodist temples offering “Cowboy Sunday Service” and herds of big-horned cows. The sight of La Grange, with the inevitable memories of ZZ-Top, and of a group of placid bison were met with a suitable degree of excitement.
The Soviet memorabilia shop was small, but so well stocked that it undoubtedly served as the mothership for that untold multitude of old, Ukrainian-plated Mercedes vans that appeared at any flea market in Northern Italy with their load of binoculars, Lomo cameras and inextinguishable supply of commemorative pins. If Antique Roadshow’s Fiona Bruce was a closet Communist, this place would’ve made her week.
An ethnic Kyrgyz stood, beaming like the genie of the lamp, behind the counter whilst four Russian youths in flip-flops and the inevitable Adidas shorts browsed the wares. They were clean-shaven and short-haired, the one Asian guy in the group sporting a large tattoo of a military symbol – crossed swords and so on – that belied their occupation, probably at one of the major Russian bases in Dušanbe or Kulob. They left shortly thereafter, Pioneers’ hankies wrapped around their necks, tokens from their fathers’ youth.
We began feeling Houston’s presence a lot longer before we actually saw it. Roads got larger and larger, sprouting an extra two, three, sometimes even four lanes of devilish concrete. Prefab boxes – offices, shops and fast food joints – lined the sides, garlanded with gigantic US and Lone Star flags fluttering in the wind. Spaghetti junctions soared above us in delicate choreographies, whilst Texans at the wheel of their pick-up trucks displayed such an ease for right-hand overtakes that would cause a Milanese white-van-driver to blush with embarrassment. Everyone, including us, made little note of the 65-mph limit and cruised at 80. It was curiously ironic to be feeling a sense of déjà-vu bringing me back to Isfahan, Iran.
Still, it wasn’t long before the Johnson Space Center emerged on NASA Parkway, hiding behind two T-38 jets perched atop steel pylons. I drove our rental car past them, succeeding in the rather hard task of missing the visitor’s entrance and trying to access a secure governmental facility through a phalange of campus police officers. Still, they were pretty nice about it and didn’t make use of their Tasers.
If space geekiness was a recognised field of study, I’d have an MS in Gemini and a PhD in Apollo; if a place was bound to make me and my kind fall into a state of semi-permanent priapistic excitation, that was the Johnson Space Center. We parked near the Shuttle mock-up, mated to its 747 transporter, and joined the queue of families waiting by the entrance.
My friend M.’s eyes fixated on a 1960s Lubitel camera. He haggled furiously and then left with the owner in search for an ATM to seal the deal. Large trays, filled with pins in the same way that mussels are arranged at Turnham Green’s fishmonger, eyed me from behind the crystals of the cabinets in which they were kept. They were arranged by thematic and, at prices ranging from 10 somoni – £1 – to 20, they were a steal. One very large tray, possibly the fattest amongst them, was labelled космос. Space.
Alone in the shop I started browsing the pins. Apollo-Soyuz, Vostok, the small, graphite-grey commemorative lapels for fallen cosmonauts; it was a veritable space Mecca. I left laden with presents, but with only one pin for me. Rhomboid in its shape, it featured an enamelled square of space and, bang in the middle, a delightfully retro spaceship, obviously emblazoned with a red hammer & sickle. Beneath, the Cyrillic writing said 1975 – BEHEPA – 10. Even after weeks in the region I couldn’t decipher it.
The JSC visitors’ centre was a gift that kept on giving. Apollo 10’s command module. Apollo 17’s. Pete Conrad’s lunar suit, still soiled by the lunar sands. The Moon buggy. Gemini 5 and Gordo Cooper’s Faith 7. We bundled on a small multi-wagon bus, pompously called tram, trundling towards what looked a rural community college campus a little bit worse for wear. It turned out to be where everything, from the glory days of Apollo to the future lunar and Mars missions, was and is managed. Sitting on the plastic benches of the whirring vehicle, it felt bewildering that these 1960s buildings with bike racks outside their entrances, sitting one stone’s throw away from a gated community, a Bullritos restaurant and a Better Home and Gardens estate agency, could be it, but there was no way that this was a dull Surrey business park. Not when parking spots were reserved for people whose title were Chief Astronaut or Orion Program Manager.