A raw, raw day on the Western Steppes

The overnight train from Almaty draws into Turkestan just after dawn, frightening the birds hoping for an early start on the sheets of standing water left behind by the snow.

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The animals are out too – compact woolly cows toughened up from the winter, burly brown and black steppe sheep and the inevitable hairy, neurotic goats. Their shepherds will catch up with them later on horseback, or less ideally, on donkeys. The sky is leaden and the wind is damp. There will be no sun today.

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Crows’ nests. It is exactly as dank as it looks.

Hotel Edem, the best budget option in town (there are no non-budget options) is unfortunately already living up to its mixed reputation, but as usual there is a NYL at the desk prepared to bond over my passport: ‘Wait, you’re the same age as my MOTHER!’ her GT tells me. She hustles me off for breakfast, checking in to make sure I’m eating enough protein. No tourists in the bustling dining room, and the notorious nightclub seems to be located outdoors; surely no all-night disco in March?

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One of the many design flaws at Hotel Edem. The gate is padlocked. Getting onto the entrance stairs involves sidling around the banister.

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In this case the design flaw is not, as you may think, that there is no way to keep the water within the shower, it is that concreting over the drain means it has no place to go once it is on the floor.

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But I have scored famous room 215!  – the farthest room from the notorious all night disco. Of course I have to pay for the privilege ($30).

In a rare flash of prescience I have given myself only one day in Turkestan, so a car and driver are needed post haste. NYL will find me one. It will be twice what I’d pay if I go out on the streets and negotiate myself, but I’m willing to forego the extra $10. In short order I am introduced to Roma, my driver to be, another hulking Uzbek. Roma has selected ‘business casual’ for our excursion and I am so transfixed by his natty blazer and sparkling shoes, I neglect due diligence on his car, which I will regret later. I myself am swaddled in many of the clothes left after mailing my Siberian wardrobe back home, somewhat prematurely it seems.

Our destination is an hour and a half out of town through the relentless steppe, scarred here and there by dry river beds – the snow just melted, will they ever run full? A couple of villages, a tiny town. Texas on steroids.

Though Irkutsk too stood at a trade route crossroads between west and east, Sauran is my first official Silk Road site,  its crumbling city walls pierce the flatness like a mirage.

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It is so flat any topography is due to ruined walls and buildings.

One of very few surviving ancient ruins in Kazakhstan, Sauran was built in the 12th century, developed strong diplomatic and trading ties with China, survived Genghis Khan and eventually become capital of the White Horde, only to be abandoned when the nearest river abandoned it a couple of centuries later. The walls encircle a huge mound of rubble more than a kilometer in diameter.

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The virgin ruins weep exquisitely decorated pottery fragments .

Only one house has been excavated.

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I amble round, completely alone except for birds and a shepherd on a pony more than a kilometer away. I am studiously ignored.

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The shepherd is also circumnavigating the walls.

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The brickwork melts into the landscape.

After nearly 2 hours I spot Roma fastidiously picking his way over the debris and agree reluctantly to call it a day.

We have achieved Sauran via the main road west out of Turkestan, a well-maintained four lane divided highway crawling with police presumably to protect the flocks meandering from side to side, or the shepherds who like to share their lunch on the median, since there is little traffic. Motorists warn each other with complicated hand signals and Roma responds by slowing to a crawl. But wait, why he is actually leaping out of the car, surely we can’t have been nailed? In a manner of speaking: one of the four mismatched wheels has a serious flat. Fortunately he has a spare. Less fortunately nothing else.

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Roma’s tool box does not bode well for actually changing this flat tire

Fortunately again many of the sporadic cars stop to offer assistance. Less fortunately, most also lack the necessary combo of jack and appropriate wrench. A car passes every 3 minutes or so, about one in three stops, and we hit the jackpot when the lucky number of stops is seven. The wind has come straight from Siberia and Roma has had to remove his best jacket. I can huddle in the car, at least until the wheel change is imminent.

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Our Sir Galahad is deeply skeptical of the whole endeavor.

When we are on our way I firmly turn the heat up and the Uzbeki pop songs off.

Next up the most famous monument in Kazakhstan, the mausoleum of Kozha Yasaui, still an important Sufi mystic.  Designed and built on a visionary scale by Tamurlane, he died in 1405 before he could complete it. There are no tourists today, only a couple of Sufi groups making furtive pilgrimages (their Sufism is controversial). They are pleased when I leave them alone.

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The Yasaui mausoleum: Figure on left for scale.

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The unfinished front.

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The back.

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The tile above the door is much more free-form than I expected.

I finish the day with a whistle-stop tour of the Turkestan museum. A fine display of pre-history artefacts from 10,000 BC but interestingly, the whole Russian and Soviet era is completely elided. Outside, for the first time in Kazakhstan, the call to prayer.

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The guide loses interest in me at the 12th century so I can surreptitiously snap this ‘Turkestan of the Future – mock up’ despite the stern no photos warning.

Dinner at the best restaurant in town (Hotel Edem where else?) is shashlik advertised as beef, but from its texture, patently horse.  The disco sputters into life at 11, but pulls the plug at 11:15. I sleep like a log and Roma comes the next morning to drive me to the bus station, more appropriately dressed as a car mechanic and with a sheepish grin.

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