Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Papers: Colette

"The future is what doesn't happen."

On the turntable:  Duran Duran, "Thank You"

Saturday, August 19, 2017


Shattered pottery
And a trace of inoshishi;
All that remains of Nakaya teahouse. 

On the turntable:  The Animals, "Deluxe BBC Files"

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Notes for an Alaska travel piece that probably won't be written. 

...sitting on deck, scanning the water for wildlife.  Anticipation became the dominant emotion of the day.  Every whitecap was the flank of an orca, every shadow was a humpback ready to launch itself into orbit...

...not surprising for a center of government, the state capital Juneau attracts a fair share of lovably eccentric wierdos like our guide Micheal who sang us the safety features of his bus on his ukelele, or the young Tlingit who played his drum and sang us down the cable-car.  His enthusiasm was attractive, but not nearly as much as the quiet wisdom of the grandfather elder whose stories accompanied us on the way up...

 ...looking up at the glacial-scarred hills.  I began to see certain patterns that resembled the totem art of the local natives.  And in such looking I may have had some insight into their origin...

...amazing emerald green of their rivers, laden with the minerals of glacial melt off...      
...the impossible blue of the Sitka spruce needles, enhanced perhaps by my colorblind eyes.  Eagle flying past below me to perch in a tree, its white head ever watchful amongst the green branches of the hemlock;  Canadian maples, red all summer long...

..Prince Rupert, where the highway ends. From here the choice is by boat, plane, or (suicidally) foot... discoveries:  Dolly Varden salmon;  the subtle blue-greys of Sitka Spruce;  the awe in watching sea planes landing and taking off; the landscape that dwarfs everything;  glacial u-cuts of the valleys;  the weight of glaciers depressing the earth; the cruise ships overwhelming town, 6000 passengers in a town of 900;  the wonder that is spruce beer...

...staring at the shoreline as it passed, in awe of the mountains as they rose above. The density of vegetation, the wildlife within.  The waters too equally dense, an unfathomable 1500 fathoms below me, in a body of water as narrow as a modest river... 

...stepping on deck to see a whale sound; a mere curvature of slick grey back, like a great serpent sinking beneath the deep...

...Alaska was a place where the many "me's" collided.  That is to say, the various persons I was at different times in my life:  

An unfinished anthropology Masters degree, where the lecture hall resounded with the hard consonants of Tlingit and Kwakiutl, as well as with the more melodic Salish and Haida

Being offered a job on a fishing boat the summer before Japan, one turned down when the captain wouldn't offer return airfare and I was pinching pennies for my move to Asia. (Fair enough, as he only knew me through a couple of friends who had crewed previously.) But this month, reading McCloskey's Highliners, was a reminder of the perils of romantic ideals.  Then again, I read it with the apprehensive eyes of middle age, having long ago forgotten the indestructibility of 27;

I suppose the apprehension began nearly two decades ago, upon reading Krakauer's Into the Wild, a book that served as reminder of who I'd once been.   McCandless' spirit was mine, and I just as easily could have shared his early demise...        

On the turntable:  The Doors, "Waiting for the Sun"
On the nighttable:  John McPhee, "Coming into the Country" 

Monday, August 14, 2017


Thanks to Amy Chavez for linking one of the recent Inland Sea posts to her Mooo blog.

On the turntable:  "The Last Waltz (Sdtk)" 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map IX

It was still dark when we arrived in Istanbul, and due to the early hour, we were whisked through immigration and customs before I even had time to think of Midnight Express.  Our hotel proved generous in allowing us an early check-in, so we were crawling into bed just as the muezzin began his morning call.  This hotel, the Four Seasons, was well situated, and advertised itself as being a restored palace.  It was only later that I found out that it also been Sağmalcılar Prison, the very place where Billy Hayes had done time.  I’m sure the rooms are a lot nicer now.

We awoke in time for lunch at a sidewalk café, then wandered over to Hagia Sophia.  Despite being the off-season, the place was bustling, and I wondered at how crowded it must have been before the semi-monthly terrorist strikes that plagued 2016.  The place was undergoing major restoration, and I began to grumble about paying full fare.  The nearby Roman Cistern had come highly recommended, but was infested with vermin – hundreds of school kids shrieking and filling the already cramped space with their incessant selfie posing. 

We retreated back up to the Topkapi Museum, number one on my list due to the great old film with Peter Ustimov.  But here too was crowded with older students, pressing themselves through the narrow doorways into rooms already jam-packed. And here too was the scaffolding, with more than half the rooms off limits, including, and most frustratingly, the displays for the Spoonmaker's Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger, which I had most hoped to see.   I cooled my anger with a coffee on the terrace out back, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  

But it was the massage at the Aya Sofia Hamam, that finally brought calm.  This beautifully restored Turkish bath was a masterpiece in tile, the ceiling above as designed by Spirograph.   The time, the day, the era, all blended together by the work of strong hands.

I found the freedom I had been seeking at dawn the following day.  Using the classic Strolling Through Istanbul as a guidebook, I hopped a taxi out to the far side of Galata Bridge to begin a morning’s stroll.  I crossed the Golden Horn once again, alone but for a handful of fishermen casting lines into the waters below, which twitched in the wake of ferries whose own crossings were proceeded by whistle-blast. 

I skirted the Spice Market and began to climb toward a quiet Sultanamet, having the broad open spaces to myself, my photos unencumbered by the shapes of strangers.  After a simple breakfast in the shadow of Aya Irini, I walked through the Outer Garden of the Saray, popping into color in the early springtime.  A failed attempt to cross back below the Topkapi brought me to a military post, so I reversed myself and continued to wander the district, popping into lesser museums covered by my three-day pass.  A number of them were similarly under renovation, and I cursed the tourist bureau once again.  (Later I heard from others that this seems to be Istanbul’s perpetual state, a ploy perhaps at getting return visitors.) 

This walk set the tone for the next few mornings, and I covered a great deal of the city this way, book in hand.  The quiet of the smaller mosques reminded me of the lesser temples of Southeast Asia, always an oasis of green calm in a chaotic cityscape.  Dogs lazed about, and worshippers nearly blended into the surroundings so quiet was their prayer.  I walked ever westward, toward Europe, climbing each of the seven hills, wandering the massive mosques that defined them, each with quaint neighborhoods of their own.  At some point during these ambulations, I fell in love with the city. 

The Fatih area was perhaps my favorite, so far off the tourist track, so run down the archeological sites, sitting amidst neighborhoods sliced into interesting geometric shapes by haphazard lanes, all running into the ganglia of intersections that seemed villages in their own right.  Schoolkids made their way toward classes, and older residents sat with their newspapers and strong coffee.  A pair of tourists too fuelled up in a café, where the owner reached over to the vendors next door, to break the usual oversized denomination.  Nearby, a rubbish collector slept inside his empty mobile rubbish bin. The open marble grounds of the Fatih Mosque were bright and beautiful on a sunny day.  Fountains splashed invitingly in front of a set of escalators leading downhill.  A somewhat sketchy guy dozed over his cigarette, but I worry he was going to steal my shoes.   Down a street adjoining the mosque I began to notice a different brand of Islam had taken root, with bushy beards and women in fuller burqas.  I watched one woman vacuum the street and wonder perhaps unkindly if she ever caught the drag of her hem in the suction.

In the afternoons I’d do similar walks with LYL and her friend Naile, who’d flown over from Ankara to join us.  The days stayed cool and encouraged longer distances, always punctuated by coffee and Turkish delight.  Meals were exquisite, on par with Italy in my opinion, taken at outdoor cafes where we’d admire the dogs, chat with fellow diners, and try to think about anything but terrorists.  (I was affected by them anyway, in the form of Trump’s travel ban.  Unknown to me, electronics had been banned from US flights originating in certain countries, Turkey among them.  The UK had followed suit, and thus I was deprived of reading material for my London flight.  I got of easy off course, compared to too many others, but was annoyed nevertheless.)  

And how not to love this city? With its Bosporus views from Suleymaniye Mosque; the bustling stroll down the trendy Istikal Caddesi; zigzagging through the former Silk Road caravanserai that dot the hill between the Grand and Spice Bazaars; the medieval charm of Galata?  Even the polished patter of the carpet sellers was amusing, offering a brief moment of laughter as you drifted past.  If any of their wares had been of the flying variety, I’d have bought one immediately, if only to return, homing pigeon-like back to the city of its birth. 

On the turntable:  David Byrne, "Rei Momo"

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map VIII

The best description of Ashgabad can be found in Lonely Planet, which I’ll paraphrase as being Las Vegas as if designed by the North Koreans.  Each and every building looked like a casino, most of all the ministries that were of an impossible scale.  The roads that lined them were near empty, home only to angled street lamps that looked like the psychedelic bats that nest in ralph Steadman’s imagination.  We weren’t allowed off the bus, but I kept my camera clicking like a machine gun the entire way.  It truly was a bizarre experience, touring a city that we weren’t exactly welcome in.  As we drove around the word that kept rolling around and around in my brain like a Lotto ball was “ostentatious.”     

Besides lunch in a building completely devoid of signs, the only stop we made was a museum.  It was Wednesday, the usual day off, but the opened up just for us, which no doubt made an already dour looking staff even more unhappy.  The whole placed reeked of kerosene, in an abrupt attempt at fending off the gloomy day outside.  The staff seemed to do little but keep our groups in the sections we were designated to see.  One of them led us around, explaining things in a very bizarre English, filled with mispronunciations that hinted at a passive language development with only books as a resource.  He went into remarkable detail about absolutely everything, which hinted at a long morning ahead. LYL and I broke away to explore on our own, under the pretext of needing the bathroom.  (While the museum itself was a beautiful specimen, the toilets were like an archeological site, with sandpaper toilet paper.)  All the non-historical (read: non-tourist friendly) rooms were monuments to the glory of the empire, and got more and more bizarre as we went along.  The minders we passed didn't seem too happy with our being there, but simply kept their heads down and fiddled with their phones.  As is always the case with these kinds of museums, the payoff comes with the most recent exhibits where the central motif is the handsome, well-coifed leader, photo-shopped into action hero poses before an array of backgrounds.   

We got some reprieve from all of this by driving out to the Nissa, the Parthian capita until the 3rd Century CE.  The land here was lush, the white marble falling away to be replaced by juniper and pine.  Hundreds of thousands had been planted, thickening the closer they came to the carved out hillsides beyond, yet of a smaller height. The easy comparison for me was with New Mexico, right down to the blocky adobe structures baking in the sun, beside the more curved walls of kiva.  

Nissa itself could have been an uninhabited Taos Pueblo, shadowed by monstrous peaks that shot rapidly toward the sky.  On their far side was Iran, a lone road curved and dipped dangerously up to the pass leading up and over.  Somewhere as I walked along my iPhone sent me a text telling me that I’d actually entered that country.  It was a tantalizing thought, but I was happy enough here, walking through the narrow passages that would open now and again into keyhole-shaped doorways that revealed the green oasis that surrounded us. 

Tukemenbashi had ordered some of Ashgabat’s biggest and most garish structures to be built outside the city, including our own rocket-ship shaped hotel.  Nearby was the world’s largest (and perhaps least-used) indoor ferris wheel that looked like a massive lozenge.  Another was an enormous TV tower that brought in very little, but did extend a middle finger toward neighboring Iran. 

Largest of all was the mausoleum to the great leader himself.  It was a beauty indeed, probably the most impressive in town, and certainly the most colorful building in Central Asia, with towering minarets and that ubiquitous 8-pointed star that could be seen everywhere and never failed to remind me of a sheriff’s badge.  How fitting then that we arrived just in time for the changing of the guard.  Their self-conscious showboating was like a Monty Python skit, especially when the highest-ranking officer twirled his rifle high in the air and nearly got a bayonet in the forehead.  Fear of detainment is all that kept us from bursting into laughter. 

The sun eventually fell, and the marble neon was once again lit by a million colored bulbs.  An oil-rich nation, Turkemenistan lacked nothing for natural energy.  But it was the absence of life here created a bigger impression.   How ironic the parallel that an alignment of marble such as this is more often found in cemeteries. 

Our dinner that night was equally dead, energy-wise.  What is the point of throwing a farewell dinner for people who already wished they were gone?  There was music, there was dancing, but the life had gone out of the group and dinner seemed more something to get through than to enjoy.  Like everywhere else in country, the service was inefficient, the people cold. (I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking populace, who only broke their scowling countenances when shouting at you if you tried to raise a camera, even if it wasn’t pointed at them.)  The highlights of the trip were already behind us, leaving Turkmenistan as an amusing afterthought to the glories of Uzbekistan, the beauties of Kazahkstan.  (And if I were to condense the entire journey to a single line, it is this: Kazahkstan has the landscape; Uzbekistan has the monuments; Turkmenistan has the oddball politics.)   But I couldn't imagine starting here. 

After a few hours sleep back at our space capsule, we went to catch our late night flight to Istanbul.  The airport was brand new, just in time for the Asian Games later in 2017, and it was a beauty, but it wasn’t long before the flaws began to reveal themselves.  Security checkpoints began just inside the sliding glass doors, which ensured that queues spilled out onto the sidewalks and roads.  The check-in process was a long and complicated one, the blind leading the blind.  Before reaching the gates, our bags were checked twice, our documents three times.  You never quite knew when you were through, and could sit and caffeinate toward the 4 am departure.   And it was with great relief to lift off, the bright lights of the city receding behind our wings.  I’d never been so happy to leave a country, and am certain I’ll never return.  That said I’d recommend a visit very highly, as you will never find a more bizarre place on earth.  Though I’m not sure that this qualifies as a compliment.  For which I feel slightly guilty.   As I left the Turkmenistan Consulate in Tokyo a few months before, visa in hand, the last thing the Consul said to me was “Write something good about my country.” 

I’m very sorry sir, but I’m not sure that I can. 

On the turntable:  Dead Kennedys, "Live at the Deaf Club"

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map VII

There was a palpable feeling of anxiety about the border crossing.  A few months ago LYL had laughed about the bureaucratic complexities of getting our visa for Turkmenistan, a country which acted as if it were the latest hot-spot for illegal immigration and so needed to stem the refugee problem by creating ridiculously complicated procedures to get in.  But having done a bit more reading, I realized that the country was a dictator’s paradise, the cult of personality turned up to eleven.  (And now, back home, Trump was busy doing the same thing.)

Our Uzbek guides had left us earlier on, and now at the border, uniformed strongmen boarded our dining car, bringing to a quick end the convivial mood we'd enjoyed over dinner.  LYL and quickly escaped back to our compartment in an attempt to sleep through the proceedings.  But sleep was hard fought, due to the movement of people past our door.  Most unfortunately, the Turkmen guiding crew had decided to use the neighboring cabin as base camp, their voices rising and falling to accompany the clack of rail, and one of them seemed hostage to the computer game he played on his phone, the blips and beeps invading my aural passages through the thin walls.  Their boss was the worst of all, with a loud booming voice to match his swagger.  (The woman who had previously been in charge on the Uzbek side also was fairly unpleasant, but at least she kept to herself, ruling the domain behind her hard, cold countenance.)  He was on his mobile phone near constantly, choosing to have his most boisterous conversations just outside our door.  During an interrupted nap the following day I lost my temper and told him to move along, which he did, though he was at it again before long.  Truly a detestable person. 

So it was that I watched through bloodshot eyes our train rolling into Mary in the pre-dawn light.  Massive flags waved lethargically above huge blocks of white marble.  As the light came up, so did the passengers, waiting in the cold for a train that hadn’t yet arrived.  The women were all wearing what I’d seen associate with the national dress, sexily form-fitting like the aozai of Vietnam yet in an array of colors, above which the whole look was capped with towering head scarves.  Our guide chose a simple black suit, befitting perhaps her status as history professor.  She looked tired, a bit beaten down by life, the dry rambling of her information lacking the comedic charm of the professional guide.  She was far more pleasant to talk with one on one, and she was certainly helpful and attentive to our respective interests.  (Luckily we were spared the guide from the German group, who had been told to bathe before rejoining them, his stench filling an entire bus.)

A short drive from Mary was Merv, two ancient names that seemed more fitting for a 1950’s sitcom couple.   Merv is actually the site of five cities, built over an incredible span of twenty-six centuries.  Very little remains to catch the eye, aside from a heavily retrofitted 12th century Sufi mausoleum (thanks UNESCO!), and the crumbling 7th century pair of crumbling edifices of Kyz Kala, looking like a sand-encrusted radiator.  With its relatively few sights, Merv was less a delight for the eye, as for the mind’s eye.  The highlight for me was the climb up to the ringed walls of Erk Kala, and looking across what must have been a bustling city, in whatever way people bustled in the 6th Century.  Marv’s prime location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia would also spell its doom, first at the hands of Alexander the Great, before rebuilding again and again until being completely obliterated before the armies of Genghis Khan’s most ruthless son, Tolui.  Very appropriate then to see a small cemetery out there amidst the sands

What followed was lunch in a spacious garden that served as peaceful oasis in a village that was not long from becoming a ruin itself.  In a yurt at the center of the compound, three generations of women demonstrated traditional labor with the loom and mortar and pestle.  (They also demonstrated traditional smiles, the only ones I would see while in country.)  Over a lunch of meat salad and strong wine, a man strummed a two string instrument through a small amp, noodling like I did when I tried and failed to play guitar at age 14.  Noodling, noodling…

Our convoy of large coaches bounced back along the pothole pocked ‘roads’ of the village, before reaching again the arrow straight pavement that led back toward Mary.  There was a chain of villages along the way,  partially built sidewalks extended only to their perimeters.   And the salt-crusted sands that linked them were hard evidence at the environmental chaos of the Aral Sea just to the north.   It was a landscape as abused as any I’ve ever seen; loads of rubbish everywhere, standing water nearly orange. Nothing seemed to live or exist out here, except for a group of dromedaries walking slowly past.  To add to an impression already apocalyptic, one house had a fence made of the bonnets of cars. 

We arrived into Ashgabad not long before midnight.  Our hotel stood high on a bluff outside the city, with rooms that were nearly the size of an entire train carriage.  The sudden psychological gift of space made for great sleep, above a neon-lit white cityscape blazing bright in the center of the desert.

On the turntable:  Derek & The Dominos, "In Concert"

Monday, August 07, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map VI

That night we crossed the Oxus, dim in the fading light, which helped to preserve the great river’s mystery, which had held spellbound dozens of writers and explorers. But in this parched part of the world, water is far more important than lore, and the river’s output was abundant to support a number of empires, most notably those of Alexander, and Genghis Khan (though centuries apart).  In modern times, overirrigation had greatly diminished its flow, dramatic proof being the Aral Sea, now one-tenth its previous size.    

The morning dawned to skies as magnificent and blue as the day before.  It was still early when we arrived in Bukhara, beginning the day with a visit to the Kalon Mosque and its adjacent minaret, now off limits, but the scene of a handful of legends involving the ingenuity of the few who survived being thrown from its 47-meter height. The courtyard of the mosque was simply immense, and could handle ten thousand visitors, but we had it to ourselves this day.  Between the sky and its dome and the tilework, it was like a multihued demonstration of the color blue.   

The next two days I spent wandering, exploring all the hidden corners and back roads.  A carpet seller explained heft and weave, all in a flawless London accent. Sellers huddled in the crumbling Abdul Aziz Khan Madressa, their business pitch much more solid than the edifice around them; Char Minar stood alone in a sunken courtyard, quiet and atmospheric and somehow reminiscent of a space shuttle.  Historically there had been snakes here, but I found that difficult to believe, considering it was now hemmed in by houses; I stroll through the labyrinth of covered bazaars, the sellers friendly, unaggressive.  I returned late to buy a drum the following day, but seemed to have chosen the only salesperson in town who took Sundays off;  (I’d eventually but one in a caravanserai, from a musician whose 10 years old son out tapped a few licks before handing it over.)  I also bought a hand puppet for my daughter, its creator considered a national treasure.  Nearby, a European couple sat on the sunken steps before the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, dazzled by its 1100 year beauty.      


A walk at dawn took me down the alleyways, away from the polish of  the UNESCO funded main sites.  I popped into a few madrasa and found that I had them to myself; making it far easier to find contemplation at a time before the symbiotic dance of tourist and merchant got underway.  My feet led me to the infamous Bug Pit, where a pair of poor, cocky Englishmen found ample time for contemplation, and hopefully reflected on their arrogance, which ultimately got them killed.  I sat out front after my visit, looking over at the hulking Ark across the sands, most of the once proud structure reverting back to desert.  In her spreading shadow, three boys played with a Spiderman doll.

I cut back through the carpet marker, locals mainly, as the sellers had no real interest in me.  I settled eventually with a coffee by the pond Lyabi Hauz. I attempted to get involved with my book about Ibn Battutah, but was often pulled away by people who wanted to take a photo with me.  The most persistent were a group of girls, in high school probably, who had dressed up for a Sunday on the town.  (I’d run into them twice more before the day was over.) 

The final evening , our group watched a concert in the Namozgohk Mosque, where on a massive carpet had been laid across the courtyard, and a series of local dances were performed.  It was difficult to assess which was more beautiful, the movements or the costumes.  Between dances, four models drifted through wearing a stunning array of clothing that ran across the centuries.  Swallows flitted above, alight on the bounce of the notes emitting from the percussion and strings.  It was a magical evening, culminating in a dinner in the sprawling home of an apparently successful merchant, who joined in on stirring a massive pot of plov bubbling away in a fire pit at the center of a courtyard.  The Uzbeks had proven to be wonderful hosts, as open and inviting as their spacious architecture.  But sadly we’d be crossing the border that night. 

On the turntable:  Dave Douglas, "The Infinite" 

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map V

We were somewhere outside Samarkand when the desert began to take hold.  The infinite grasslands had disappeared, replaced by wasteland devoid of all life but for the scrub of small plants.  Where the odd village did appear, the old concrete buildings of the north had been replaced by less solid dwellings of baked brick.  Children ran along the dusty lanes between them.  The livestock too had mainly been replaced by high electrical lines, and when finally some sheep did appear, judging from the distance between shrubs, I imagine they’d be hard pressed to find food.  Yet despite the dry, parched look to things, there was far more water to be seen, in the form of broad rivers, narrow irrigation channels, and oasis-like collective pools. Most of the latter were surrounded by dense, multi-colored clusters of vegetation.  This abundance of water may help explain the profuse flowers sprouting acre after acre from the arid earth.   But between these, salt stains bleached the landscape like some weirdly abnormal pigmentation.  Coming from nowhere and heading toward the same, two men bounced across this desert on a motorcycle. 

 So it was some surprise to come to the train station in Urgench , just outside Khiva.   This tidy looking town was filled with squat, boxy buildings, and an elaborate canal system that demarcated the perimeters of the multitudinous rice fields here.   A tractor was busy tilling one field, pulling a plow atop which two men were squatting in order to force the blades deeper into the dry soil.  Not far off in another field, an old couple clad in traditional dress labored heavily with their hoes, under the watch of some fresh new homes.  A fleet of green Scoda trolleybuses, the last such buses in Uzbekistan, provided service for the few residents here.  Yet most of the homes looked unfinished, despite the odd car here and there. 

With all this cultivation, it was easy to see Khiva as an oasis, and the compact nature of the walled, fortress-like town confirmed it.  I found it the most splendid place so far, the absence of cars within adding to the ambience.  There were very few temporal markers within, making it easy to forget the century.  The only touristic elements were the sellers of hats made from various furs, but they stayed close to the main gate and once through this initial gauntlet, the place was mine.  Narrow lanes led between the usual mosques and madrases, but they too took on the uniform look here of plain brown, baked soil walls.  The most impressive building was the Kuhna Ark, and climbing up and around its multi-level, angular dimensions was a return to the games of childhood.  This spirit remained with me as I climbed on all fours up the steep, spiraling internal stairwell of the Juma Minaret, the only light coming from a few small windows, and the screen of my iPhone.  The views from the top were of a film set, Tatooine to my mind.  I could imagine the traders here in days past, elbowing their way through the masses, adorned in a fashion show with origins all across Asia.  It was the birth of the global economy.
These ancient roots can still be glimpsed in the bazaar just outside the East Gate, where sellers sit on blankets in the shade, under the gaze of camels bellowing obstinately in the corners. A box of onions has been left in the streaming sunlight, each orb gleaming like the top of a minaret.  I found myself caught up in the sprit of the place, coming away with a fur hat befitting a Mongol horseman, as well as with a tube of toothpaste. 

Under picture perfect blue skies, I wandered the lanes again and again, before winding the day up with a cup of tea in one of the squares, taking a hint from Katya, the town’s famous camel, who lazed about in the shade nearby. 

On the turntable:  Duke Ellington, "Ellington at Newport"

Friday, August 04, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map IV

Samarkand.  Now we were getting into the classic Silk Road, the names reverberating with legend.  Sadly the weather was still not in our favor, the skies dark with the threat of rain.  I am sure I shared with my fellow travelers the desire to see these old cities and their monuments beneath the flawless blue skies of the travel posters.    

Our first stop was Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum, Timur’s burial place.  This is one of the most visited sites in Central Asia, probably so that people can guarantee the old murderer is still dead.  The dark skies begat strong icy winds that seemed fitting somehow, until the novelty wore off.  There were a few dozen other visitors braving the cold, a good number of them (male and female alike) asking to pose for photographs with me.  This had happened quite few times over the past few days, and strangely it was only myself and one other fellow who were asked, every time.  The attention was quite fun, today made more ridiculous by the felt hats (his with the sad droopy ears of a basset hound) that he and I had bought as protection from the chill.  Yet we were just a sideshow to the magnificent structure rising behind us, the tiles and domes a bright blue that wasn't diminished in the least by the grey above.
A shade of blue equal in brilliance could be found a short drive away at Ulugbek’s observatory, it a spiraling mural behind a proud statue of the man.  This grandson of Timur proved a better astronomer than ruler, and was particularly shortsighted in not foreseeing his eventual murder by his son (who in turn was killed by a group of amirs, limiting the Timurid dynasty to a mere century.)  Despite Ulugbek’s constant reaching for the heavens, the madrassa he founded here was more earthbound, lacking the towering domes and minarets common to the style, and of a hue more akin to the swirling sands.  The real masterpiece was just in front, a large tube-like structure that crawled up this man-made hill like the noborigama kilns of Japan.  Entering the tube was like climbing into a massive sextant, the parallel grooves burrowing three stories downward. 

Old Samarkand itself too is subterranean, as the Mongol invasions of the 13th century obliterated it completely. (It was Timur, surprisingly, who rebuilt the city just to the west, serving somewhat like Shiva in bringing creation out of destruction.) The Afrosiab kept a 7th century fresco that depicted a Sogdian king receiving dignitaries from as far off as China.  Yet the deserted hillocks and dusty plain outside betrayed little of the great city that had dazzled Alexander 1700 years before. 

After lunch, our group went on to a carpet factory, but LYL and I decided to go to our hotel and rest, the street in front so pockmarked it was like multiple speedbumps.  Though the rambling traveler in me hates to admit it, it was pleasant to catch up on the world after three days without wifi.  Dinner beckoned eventually, a perfunctory meal served in a somewhat sterile, oversized banquet room.  But the highlight of the evening was a good night’s sleep, in a room that refused to move. 

The sky this day too was bleached out, the surface of The Registan, not to mention my spirit damp with rain.  Nonetheless it was a majestic sight, these three madrasas staring each other down a square that had once served as marketplace and execution ground.  The age of each of these structures was betrayed by their inability to stand up straight, none more so than the minarets, and a shoddy Soviet reconstruction job did little to prevent them from leaned in odd directions as if blowing in the wind.  But despite the imperfections, their beauty was mesmerizing, little doubt since Timur had deliberately brought here any artisans that he had captured during his wide raids. Even the poor weather couldn't hide the intricate detailed of their facades, of lions and blue onion domes.  The inner courtyards were all flanked by doorways that led to shops now occupying the former student cells.  In one, a musician demonstrated his merchandise, playing each and every instrument with perfection.  Here again I found my own personal Silk Road, one defined by music, the sounds overlapping across cultures.  

Most impressive to me was the Tilla Kari Madrasa, the most weathered of all, but whose solid gold interior froze me for a good ten minutes.  Each and every madrasa or mosque I had visited so far had not failed to stun me, their colors hypnotic, with the intricacy of their spirals, the honeycomb geometry of their stalactites, the flawless slope to the ceilings.  It made it worth it I suppose to sit through all those seemingly useless algebra classes back in school, to be able to stand beneath these domes and marvel at their perfection.           

We followed a long promenade toward the central market.  Sunday strollers smiled and meandered with little regard to destination.  I paralleled one old man, beard stretching toward his chest, his posture and spectacles marking him as a scholar.  I wondered his view of life, the political and social changes that had determined his life trajectory.  Yet he pottered on.

Likewise, what changes had been seen beneath the domes of the Bibi Khanym Mausoleum, itself curling with gravity toward the earth?  The interior was a ruin and off-limits, bricks strewn about where they fell.  Despite this, sellers peddled their wares in some of the less dusty corners, perhaps a spillover from the larger, bustling market next door.  I gave this a skip, having earlier spied a shop advertising coffee.  After a week of instant coffee on the train, the strong ground of Arabian coffee nearly took off the back of my head.   

This all focused my attention on the ride to come, along the streets of new Samarkand.  There were many signs here for avocat, the legal profession apparently quite lucrative.  There was one store called Papa Jobs, which appeared to repair Apple computers.  On one corner, a man gave a handful of money to a babushka.  A towering mansion looked constructed as if by a child, its owner constantly building and adding to it in a childlike lack of self-control.  And as the road took us more and more into suburb, there was a marked increase in fish sellers  

We arrived at a quiet estate on the outskirts of town, the compound a handful of buildings made of earth and barely hewn tree limbs.  A waterwheel jutted from one wall, its spindly arms pounding sticks of mulberry into pulp to be used as paper.  It all had a delightfully quiet dignity, a place of repose after a week in near motion. 

This motion propelled us again back to the old city, for a visit to Shah-i-Zinda, the part of Samarkand that I had most wanted to see.  This place too was reminiscent of a noborigama kiln, each tomb the size of a small mosque, climbing side by side up the slope toward the ancient city.   A trio of old women clad in black set the tone for the visit, sitting upon a bench at the base of the hill, opening their palms toward the sky, toward the old teachers, toward God.  Yet further up was spoiled somehow, mainly by the number of tourists clustering in the narrow confines.  I hadn't really been bothered by tourists on this trip, as the scale of things thus far (as true for the work of Christianity as for Islam) had been large and momentous, the body given space by the open courtyards, the eyes pulled heavenward by the pitch of arch and dome.   

Nowhere else was this as true as during a return visit to The Registan, this time at night.  The madrassas simply hung in the air against the dark, their surfaces miraculously devoid of any color but for a brilliant white, minarets holding up the featureless black sky.  It was if encountering the gates of heaven itself.   

On the turntable:  Dean & Britta, "13 Most Beautiful"

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map III


The rain kept up, heavier this time, as we awoke at dawn in a small station in Kamashi, not far from the Afghan border.  While the war across that imaginary line hadn’t touched this mountainous region, the roads certainly looked as they had.  We bumped and bounced along in a mini-bus, like in the spin cycle of a washing machine, what with the rain drenched windows.  We turned off onto a series of smaller and smaller roads, which surprised in getting better the further out we got.  It was near smooth sailing into the village of Langar Ata, where a local family was awaiting our visit.  The dozens of people there attested more to an extended family, spanning many generations.  The paradox of a visit to a local family or tribe is that you are generally visiting with a headman or a home with great wealth, which are by no means the average citizen of a place.  As it was, they entertained us with songs of welcome and demonstrations of their traditional ways, though the sight of the older women tying a young child to a wooden plank bed while affixing a sort of catheter to prevent bedwetting was a hair shy of child abuse to many of us. Happier children could be found at a school up the valley, where we broke into small groups to eavesdrop on a few classes, the kids as interested in us as we were in them.  I felt a bit sorry for those in PE, running and running in circles around the gym to flash of our the cameras.

Lunch was had back on the train, probably so as not to burden the family with feeding 70 plus guests. Outside the windows the sky was beginning to lift.  A herd of camels passed by for ten minutes or so, hundreds and hundreds of them.  A guy on a donkey talked happily on his mobile. Later, from far off, I saw a pair of pillars stuck into the sand.  Upon approach, I realized that they were men walking to who knows where.  Their shadows were the tallest things on the landscape. 

Late afternoon and the train arrived at Shahrisabz, a name too complicated for us to remember, so LYL and I simply used Shishkabab.  Riding though the outskirts of town, I pondered the infinite number of shapes that broken concrete could take.  (This game can be played almost anywhere in Asia.)     

Shahrisabz is the birthplace and supposed burial site for Timur, who in his day buried up to 17 million others, or 5% of the world population at the time.  A massive statue of the man stood on the site of the old city, of a scale quite befitting history’s biggest mass murderer.  The body density and epic-hero tough guy posturing seemed modeled on Steve Reeves, circa Hercules.  Timur unchained roamed the length and breath of central Asia, from Turkey to north India.  But it was his rambling nature that was his demise, and he died during an ill-advised winter campaign against China, bought down by a common cold.  He had requested to be buried here in his birthplace, but as bringing his body through the snow-covered mountains proved impossible, his tomb was instead in Samarkand on the opposite side.  

The town had once been heavily fortified, and only the walls and the main gate remained. The latter was quite magnificent in scale, despite the broken arch being half of what it had once been.  No doubt it would have been an imposing sight when seen on approach from horseback.  Known as Ak-Saray, its 65-meter height was now a towering ruin of stone and broken tile, despite the warning written upon it:  "If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!"

Outside the town’s walls were follies of a more recent vintage, in the form of comfortable and expensive looking flats.  The ground level housed shops of various sorts, but the apartments above looked empty.  It all had an admittedly lovely uniform beauty, their rows ringing the walls as if an outer layer to the once great city that had stood here.  But these were as equally empty and unpopulated and hollow.  A blatant abuse of UNESCO funds, though the organization has since threatened to revoke World Heritage status should the construction continue.

A far better use had been the mosque, and its attendant courtyards.  With its pond and small, covered pavilions, it was much as I imagined the gardens of ancient Islam to look.  I could picture men walking in conversation, debating the Koran as they strolled the broad walkways beneath the trees.  Had they known of the tombs beneath?  In later years, a number of houses had once been built upon the crumbling walls themselves, and one day a young girl had gone crashing through. Dazed, but unhurt, she found herself looking at a number of stone sarcophagi.  Inscriptions showed that it had originally been intended for Timur, but instead was the slumbering place for two unknown corpses, who sleep on to this day.  And in the new homes just beyond, built from foreign plunder befitting the spirit of Timur, no one sleeps at all.

On the turntable: Dooble Brothers, "Best of the Doobies"
On the nighttable:  Selina Hastings, "The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham"