Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Nation Without Borders – Journeys Through Kurdistan

Kurdistan comprises a craggy, mountainous stretch through the epicenter of the Middle East and is home to as many as 30 million Kurds, the fourth largest ethnic group in the region. Long marginalized and brutally repressed--as in the late 1980s, when Saddam Hussein attacked Iraqi Kurds with chemical weapons and destroyed more than 4,000 Kurdish villages--the Kurds are notoriously independent, passionate, and proud, and today they hold tremendous geopolitical importance, as evidenced by their role in building the new Iraqi government.

The author of the book that represents this region (“A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts”), Christiane Bird, first became fascinated by the Kurds during her 1988 visit to Iran. Here, she explores Iraqi Kurdistan - which, with a decade of protection as part of the "Northern No-Fly Zone," has flourished as a near-autonomous democracy - and makes stops in Syria, Iran, and Turkey, showing Kurdish history and culture along the way.

Though the Kurds played a major military and tactical role in the United States’ recent war with Iraq, most people know little about this fiercely independent people. Christiane Bird’s travels through this volatile part of the world, provide us with a glimpse of the Kurds’ story, using personal observations and in-depth research to illuminate an astonishing history and vibrant culture.

For the twenty-five to thirty million Kurds, Kurdistan is both an actual and a mythical place: an isolated, largely mountainous homeland that has historically offered sanctuary from the treacherous outside world and yet does not exist on modern maps. Parceled out among the four nation-states of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran after World War I, Kurdistan is a divided land with a tragic history, where the indomitable Kurds both celebrate their ancient culture and fight to control their own destiny. Occupying some of the Middle East’s most strategic and richest terrain, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the region and the largest ethnic group in the world without a state to call their own.

Whether dancing at a Kurdish wedding in Iran, bearing witness to the destroyed Kurdish countryside in southeast Turkey, having lunch with a powerful exiled agha in Syria, or visiting the sites of Saddam Hussein’s horrific chemical attacks in Iraq, the intrepid, Bird sheds light on a violently stunning world seen by few Westerners. Part mesmerising travelogue, part action-packed history, part reportage, and part cultural study, this critical book offers timely insight into an unknown but increasingly influential part of the world. Bird paints a moving and unforgettable portrait of a people uneasily poised between a stubborn past and an impatient future.

The book's title comes from a Kurdish poem about the Kurds' determination to be masters of their own lands, an effort that brings about "a thousand sighs, a thousand tears, a thousand revolts, a thousand hopes." Bird deftly describes each of those aspects of Kurdistani culture, from the sighs and tears of women who offer Bird both flavourful dinners and wrenching stories of loss, to the hopes of Kurdish artists who believe their ethnic group's artistic traditions can survive beyond war. Where Bird focuses most, however, is the revolts that have plagued the Kurds for decades. The largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own, the Kurds live in an arc of land that stretches through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the former Soviet Union. As Bird travels through Kurdistan (a country that isn't on any map), she meets an array of people, from scholars to bus drivers. Each story of conflict, poverty, homelessness and suffering is like a brushstroke in a larger portrait of the Kurdish experience.

The journey to my next port of call – Iraq – should be relatively easy, as technically I am already there! This trip is covered by “The Baghdad Blog” by ‘Salam Pax’. Salam Pax is the pseudonym of Salam Abdulmunem, under which he became the "most famous blogger in the world" during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Along with a massive readership, his site "Where is Raed?" received notable media attention. The pseudonym consists of the word for "peace" in Arabic (salam) and in Latin (pāx). His was one of the first instances of an individual's blog having a wide audience and impact. In 2003 Atlantic Books, in association with The Guardian, published a book based on "Where is Raed?" under the title "The Baghdad Blog". It comprises Salam's blog entries from September 2002 to June 2003 - at the epicentre of the build up to and invasion of Iraq by Allied forces.

Rather than risk an overland journey through Iraq (still not advised for foreigners), I shell out £334 one a one-way MEA flight that takes me from Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), into the Iraqi capital itself, Baghdad (via Beirut on a 16.5 hour journey…leaving at 22.25 and arriving bleary-eyed at Baghdad International Airport (formerly Saddam International Airport) at 01.30 in the morning…

Monday, 28 November 2011

Censoring an Iranian Love Story

When a story comes to an Iranian writer's mind, he or she is doomed to think of two different versions: the story as it is, and a bowdlerised version that might avoid the scissors of official censorship. The latter is the one that will be submitted to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which vets all books before publication; but this is just the beginning of the odyssey for the poor writer.

In “Censoring an Iranian Love Story“, his first novel to be translated into English, Shahriar Mandanipour, who moved to the US in 2006 but had previously published dozens of stories in Iran, puts both versions in one book. In this playful tale, both writer and censor appear as fictional characters; while for his lovers Mandanipour has chosen Sara and Dara, jaunty figures familiar from first-grade textbooks that were pulped after the Islamic Revolution.

Dara first sees Sara in a public library, where she is looking for a copy of The Blind Owl, a banned novel by the acclaimed Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat. He falls in love with her, and poses as a street pedlar to sell her the book. When she reads Hedayat's novel, Sara notices a collection of purple dots - Dara has left her a message in code. The lovers use the technique to exchange letters, as first Dara and then Sara borrow from the library The Little Prince, Dracula, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and more, until they meet up for the first time on a street protest in front of Tehran University.

As their love story progresses, Mandanipour elucidates the history of censorship in Iran, dating back hundreds of years to the intricate metaphors and complicated allegories employed by such poets as Rumi, Hafez and Khayam. However, it was only with the Islamic Revolution that censorship became official. Under this regime it could take the ministry weeks, months or sometimes years to respond to a manuscript; and this response would range from a simple yes or no to a detailed list of contested chapters, dialogues, sentences or even individual words.

In Mandanipour's novel, the ministry censor, Mr Petrovich - named after the detective in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment - argues with the author about words and phrases he wants removed from the story on the grounds that they might sexually arouse readers, harm Islamic values, endanger national security or ignite revolution.

He underlines every word, every sentence, every paragraph, or even every page that is indecent and that endangers public morality and the time-honoured values of the society. In a further complication, Mr Petrovich has gradually fallen in love with Sara while censoring her story, and is now trying to persuade the author to kill Dara off and leave the field open for himself.

“Censoring an Iranian Love Story” is a brilliant novel about the complexities of writing and publishing in Iran. It will help to further understanding of the frustrating and sometimes perilous situation of the book industry in a country where copyright is not respected, where writers struggle desperately to publish and can be jailed simply for exercising their imaginations.

The above review is by: Saeed Kamali Dehghan, The Guardian, Saturday 15 August 2009.

My next port of call is a nation that does not officially exist – that of Kurdistan, courtesy of a book called “A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts” and account of journeys throughout the region by journalist Christine Bird. Kurdistan literally means ‘Land of the Kurds’ and is a roughly defined geo-cultural region wherein the Kurds form a prominent majority population, and Kurdish culture, language, and national identity have historically been based

Contemporary use of Kurdistan refers to parts of eastern Turkey (Turkish Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), northwestern Iran (Iranian Kurdistan) and northern Syria inhabited mainly by Kurds. Kurdistan roughly encompasses the northwestern Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges, and covers small portions of Armenia.

Iraqi Kurdistan first gained autonomous status in 1970 agreement with the Iraqi government and its status was re-confirmed as an autonomous entity within the federal Iraqi republic in 2005. Some Kurdish nationalist organisations seek to create an independent nation state of Kurdistan, consisting of some or all of the areas with Kurdish majority, while others campaign for greater Kurdish autonomy within the existing national boundaries.

My first port of call in Kurdistan is in the Iraqi region is Duhok, the capital city the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan in the north of the country.

To get into Iraqi Kurdistan I take the Penjwin (Bashmak) border crossing, I am pleasantly surprised by the ease of corssing, and it takes me less than half an hour to pass. I then take a taxi from Sanandaj for 35 USD. On the other side I hitch a ride to the bus/taxi terminal 9 km away from the border. At the terminal a shared taxi costs less than 8 USD to get to Sulaimaniyah, from where I travel on to Duhok.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope

An insightful - and relatively unbiased - view of how geopolitics affects ordinary people, this book documents, in words and pictures, the lives of Armenians in the last two decades. Based on intimate interviews with three hundred Armenians and featuring Jerry Berndt's superb photographs, it brings together firsthand testimony about the social, economic, and spiritual circumstances of Armenians during the 1980s and 1990s, when the country faced an earthquake, pogroms, and war. At times shocking and deeply emotional, “Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope” is a story of extreme suffering and hardship, a searching look at the fight for independence, and an exceptionally complex portrait of the human spirit, written by Americans Donald E Miller & Lorna Touryan Miller.

A companion to the Millers' highly acclaimed work "Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide", which documented the genocide of 1915, this book focuses on four groups of people: survivors of the earthquakes that devastated northwestern Armenia in 1988; refugees from Azerbaijan who fled Baku and Sumgait because of pogroms against them; women, children, and soldiers who were affected by the war in Nagorno-Karabakh; and ordinary citizens who survived several winters without heat because of the blockade against Armenia by Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Millers' narrative situates these accounts contextually and thematically, but the voices of individuals remain paramount. The Millers also describe their personal experiences in repeated research trips, inviting us to look beyond the headlines and think beyond the circumstances of our own lives as they bring contemporary Armenia to life.

This book forms an interesting counterpoint to the other books I have read regarding neighbouring Azerbaijan and the disputed area the two countries have warred over, Nagorno-Karabakh.

From Armenia, I make my way into the Middle East and Iran, with the novel “Censoring an Iranian Love Story” by Shahriar Mandanipour.

As a UK citizen I need a visa to enter Iran, and I go for a tourist visa. Having not allowed the requisite 8 weeks to arrange for a visa at the consulate, I need to use an ‘Iran Visa Service’ (I opt for Magic Carpet Travel Ltd) in order to get a visa processed in 7 working days. The price for my disorganisation is a charge of £200 (excluding Consular stamp fees).

In order to save some money I opt for the slow – but simple – transport option of a bus from Yerevan to Tehran.

Often used by people conducting import/export business between Armenia and Iran, there are two buses a week traveling between Tehran and Yerevan in either direction. Tourists can also take the bus.

I catch the bus to Tehran in front of Hotel Erebuni. Hotel Erebuni is located behind the arch by the central Post Office on Hanrapetutian H'raparak (Republic Square), opposite the singing fountains, across the park from Hotel Armenia. The bus leaves every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 09:00 and a ticket is $35.

I am able to buy my tickets and get my bus information in the Persian bus office on the second floor of the Hotel lobby. After a gruelling 34-hour journey (which would have been much less without the lengthy border stop), I arrive in Tehran and am dropped off at the Russian Bazaar in Tehran.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Labours of Love: Childhood and Nostalgia in Abkhazia

The status of Abkhazia is a central issue of the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict. The wider region formed part of the Soviet Union until 1991. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate towards the end of the 1980s, ethnic tensions grew between Abkhaz and Georgians over Georgia's moves towards independence. This led to the 1992–1993 War in Abkhazia that resulted in a Georgian military defeat, de facto independence of Abkhazia and the mass exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population from Abkhazia. In spite of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and years of negotiations, the status dispute has not been resolved, and despite the long-term presence of a United Nations monitoring force and a Russian-dominated CIS peacekeeping operation, the conflict has flared up on several occasions. In August 2008, the sides again fought during the South Ossetia War, which was followed by the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia, the annulment of the 1994 cease fire agreement and the termination of the UN and CIS missions

As with South Ossetia, literature for this barely recognised state is thin on the ground, and so I have chosen a collection of short stories entitled “The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules” by Fazil Iskander – arguably the most famous Abkhaz writer – which are largely childhood recollections of the post-WW2 era, although some are more contemporary.

The stories range over a great deal of territory--growing up, going to school, rembrances of eccentric characters from the Abkhazia of Iskander's youth. Like Bulgakov's satires, however, Iskander's stories also have a more political substrata. Several stories subtly aim their arrows at the Soviet regime. In one story, Forbidden Fruit, a boy who snitches on his sister for eating pork is punished for his actions. In another, One Day in Summer, the story a German tourist tells our narrator about his experiences under the Nazis seems a critique of Soviet responses to Stalin. In still another, Old Crooked Arm, an eccentric outwits both his friends and the Soviet state.

All in all these form an enjoyable collection of stories that build up a nostalgic - though unsentimental – picture of modern Abkhazia, although it is a shame that a more recent literary work dealing with contemporary Abkhazia is not available (at least not in English…).

From here I make my way back to another country racked by border wars in recent years: Armenia (I have already visited neighbouring Azerbaijan and the disputed area the two countries have warred over, Nagorno-Karabakh).

As an EU citizen I need to buy a visa first. You can buy a visa when you arrive at any entry point to Armenia. A 21-day visa costs 3,000 dram (about $8/EUR6). However, border guards do accept other currencies but they will not give you a good exchange rate and often won’t take high value notes, so I go for the simpler option of ordering the visa online.

There is no direct transport from Abkhazia to Armenia, so I retrace my steps back to Tbilisi in Georgia, via jeeps (a different one for each side of the border) to Zugdidi, then overnight train to Tbilisi.

In Tbilisi I am able to get one of two daily Armavia Airlines flights from Tbilisi airport to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, leaving at 19.15 and arriving a mere 45 minutes later, for $72 (economy). "Zvartnots " International airport is 10km north of Yerevan proper, though a taxi takes only 15 minutes at a cost of around $6.

I shall be staying in Armenia courtesy of "Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope", an account by Americans Donald E Miller & Lorna Touryan Miller of Armenia’s tribulations through earthquake and war during the 1980s, 1990s and into the 21st century.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

South Ossetia: A Chronicle of Contract Murder

This book “South Ossetia: Chronicle of Contract Murder” is dedicated to the victims of the Georgian invasion of the disputed South Ossetia, during the 2008 South Ossetia War, which lasted from August 7-12. The book contains some striking photographs of the conflict, as well as survivors’ testimonies, and was released by human rights movement, Soprotivleniye (which stands for ‘resistance’ in Russian).

Along with Abkhazia, this is one of two disputed regions within the official borders of Georgia. South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia in 1990, calling itself the "Republic of South Ossetia". The Georgian government responded by abolishing South Ossetia's autonomy and trying to retake the region by force. This led to the 1991–1992 South Ossetia War. Georgian fighting against South Ossetia occurred on two other occasions, in 2004 and 2008. The last conflict led to the 2008 South Ossetia war, during which Ossetian separatists and Russian troops gained full, de-facto, control of the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast.

In the wake of the 2008 South Ossetia War, Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu recognised South Ossetia as an independent republic. Georgia does not recognise the existence of South Ossetia as a political entity, and considers most of its territory a part of the Shida Kartli region under Georgian sovereignty, occupied by the Russian army.

The 2008 South Ossetia War claimed the lives of hundreds of people. Both law enforcement bodies and non-governmental organisations are now investigating circumstances in which those civilians died. Soprotivleniye was one of the first to take up the job. On August 15 2008 psychologists filed out to Russia’s Rostov region to assist refugees from South Ossetia. At this time a hot line was also launched for the victims of the conflict. Now professionals of the movement are helping to search for people, work out schemes for transfers of humanitarian aid to South Ossetia and assist people to get financial compensation.

“We believe that in the days of the Georgian aggression European media were flooded with deceptive information about what was going on in the conflict zone,” said the head of the Public Committee Olga Kostina. “Now the world community has got access to photo and video and other documents which prove that Georgian soldiers in South Ossetia were actually committing genocide against its people. We hope that our book will help European parliamentarians and ordinary citizens to understand what really happened”.

The publication of the book “South Ossetia: Chronicle of Contract Murder” is another step in the public investigation of crimes in South Ossetia. Dedicated to the victims of Georgia’s aggression, it also marks 60 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.

The book album contains three chapters: “Crimes”, “Victims”, “Witnesses”. The first chapter briefly presents historical background of Georgia-South Ossetia relations and chronicles events preceding and following August 8. The second chapter features testimonies of people who lived through the horrors of five-day war. The third chapter is dedicated to testimonies of witnesses’– journalists, doctors, clerics. All documents are accompanied by photographs taken during the fighting in Tskhinval and after the repulse of Georgia’s attack, when first aid was delivered to South Ossetia.

Whilst there are, of course, two sides to every story – and this is very much the South Ossetian side – one cannot deny the impact of the photographs and accounts here, which seem more linked to the horrors of the Second World War than a European country in the 21st Century…

From South Ossetia I travel to Abkhazia – the other disputed region within the official borders of Georgia. I take the (relatively) safest option of leaving South Ossetia and take a public marshrutka going back to Georgia, south on the main road from Tskhinvali towards Gori and on to Tbilisi.

However, public transport from Georgia to Abkhazia does not exist. So I take a chance – and a train – from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, close to the Abkhazian border (the train, a night train, costs 18 euro for the 318km one-way trip). In Zugdidi I am able to organise travel to Abkhazia via a local “travel agent.” As cars with Georgian number plates cannot cross into Abkhazia, this transport consists of a jeep to the border, then a change of jeep with different plates and then a 30 minute drive to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, and a former holiday hot-spot located on the Black Sea.

As with South Ossetia, literature for this barely recognised state is thin on the ground, and so I have chosen a collection of short stories entitled “The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules” by Fazil Iskander – arguably the most famous Abkhaz writer – which are largely childhood recollections of the post-WW2 era, although some are more contemporary.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Guns, Roses and Vodka: Stolen Stories from Georgia

Ex-Time journalist Wendell Steavenson's record of the ruin of Georgia in the 21st century, “Stories I Stole”, makes for a fascinating account of this benighted country – both heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures.

When Wendell Steavenson was living in Georgia, she kept a collector's list of 'LAOs' - large abandoned objects. The Caucasus is littered with them: rusting tank hulls, gutted apartment blocks, the rustbelt of gigantic ruined factories that surrounds most cities. The biggest LAO is the late Soviet Union itself. Nobody wants to re-animate it. But nobody realised what the price of junking it would be.

A few decades ago, Russians assumed that if everything blew to bits, Georgia would still be a happy land. Wonderful fruit and vegetables, oceans of wine and brandy, a beautiful coastline; the Georgians would be even better off than before. Instead of which, the lights went off. There was a crazy civil war, two totally avoidable secession wars, which evicted a quarter of a million destitute refugees, and the economy collapsed.

Eight years after independence, Steavenson spent winter like most Georgians, sleeping in her clothes and reading by candlelight, in a flat where electric light, heating and hot water came on only for a few unpredictable hours of ecstasy each week. Children asked their parents what radiators were for. Adults, surviving on vodka and rotten cigarettes, asked what the Georgian government was for.

In spite of this, foreigners who visit Georgia are still entranced. Hospitality to strangers is a religion. Steavenson's life there began with one of those endless Georgian picnics that start as a lunch and end in the middle of the night, borne along by the endless toasts and speeches commanded by the Tamada (master of ceremonies). 'I was happy; charmed, drunk and beguiled like thousands of guests and invaders before me, in the land of hospitality.' But soon she understood that those who make strangers happy are not always happy themselves. Forcing guests to drink too much can be an act of aggression. What is it like to be a Georgian host?

Steavenson's friends incessantly told her stories about their country, and acted out its complexes in their lives. One shrewdly gave her Lampedusa's “The Leopard” and let her read 'Georgia' for Sicily. 'All Sicilian self-expression, even the most violent, is really wish-fulfilment; our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death... The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery... Having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.'

Two of her acquaintances, Dato and Aleko, were shady young 'biznesmen'. Dato was badly disfigured in a car crash; while he was recovering, Aleko seduced his wife. The two then confronted one another by a lake, accompanied by their friends and umpired by a minor 'godfather'. Aleko knocked Dato down; Dato pulled a gun and shot Aleko in the back, temporarily paralysing him. One of Aleko's seconds then shot Dato in the leg. Nobody won. Both men sank into terminal depression, deepened by heroin and alcohol.

A 'hankering for death'? Steavenson takes this gloomy little vendetta tale and turns it into a haunting, Chekhovian story about pride, futility and self-destruction. Stories I Stole is anything but a travelogue, although she moves through many landscapes and sick cities. It is not a hack's diary, although she is an experienced foreign correspondent and hunted with the little band of 'Caucasus Hands' who risked their necks in Chechnya or Nagorno-Karabakh. And the book isn't one more 'quest for the real me', although one strand in it is her account of an agonising love affair. This is the first published book of a practised and very gifted writer, a young Kapuscinski with a literary future ahead of her.

She made several expeditions to Abkhazia, the tiny country that broke away from Georgia in 1993 and which the world - as a punishment - has dropped into an oubliette: unrecognised, its communications cut off, its ruined towns unrepaired. Few strangers can enter, apart from Russian 'peacekeepers', UN agencies and an international corps of aid workers, from Oxfam to the Halo Trust - the quiet professionals who clear mines all over the Caucasus battlefields. Steavenson, used to Georgian resourcefulness (like the art of running an electricity meter backwards) was depressed by the stagnation of Abkhazia: 'its head was down and its listless subsistence gaze directed at the pavement'.

While she was living in Tbilisi, the second Russian war in Chechnya broke out, driving streams of refugees across the mountains into northern Georgia. Steavenson went into these kidnap territories and lived among the hard-drinking Svans and semi-pagan Khevsurs. She spent days and nights at remote border posts interviewing families escaping the war, and Chechen fighters - survivors from the hellish fighting before Grozny fell - crossing the frontier to rest and re-group.

One of the most intense sections here records a visit to the remote Pankisi valley, where she was protected by her friend the famous Chechen commander Arbi. (That lawless place has just been selected as a target in the 'war against terrorism' by US special forces; their move into Georgia and America's re-training of the Georgian army may well end in renewed war all over the region.)

Her lover, a Magnum photographer, came back to her from the war after nine months of silence and rejection, and proposed to her in a freezing hut in Pankisi. She cried, but found the strength to say no. Then he did a wonderful, Georgian thing (although he was a German): after days and nights scouring the flower-growers of the countryside, he sent her a thousand red roses. It became an instant Tbilisi legend. In that warm-hearted, ramshackle city, Wendell Steavenson will always be the girl who got a thousand roses and still turned the man down. For her readers, though, she will be remembered for this first book by an immensely talented writer.

(review by Neal Ascherson, The Observer, Sunday 14 July 2002)

From Georgia I make my way to yet another disputed territory – South Ossetia. Along with Abkhazia, this is one of two disputed regions within the official borders of Georgia.

South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia in 1990, calling itself the "Republic of South Ossetia". The Georgian government responded by abolishing South Ossetia's autonomy and trying to retake the region by force. This led to the 1991–1992 South Ossetia War. Georgian fighting against South Ossetia occurred on two other occasions, in 2004 and 2008. The last conflict led to the 2008 South Ossetia war, during which Ossetian separatists and Russian troops gained full, de-facto, control of the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast.

In the wake of the 2008 South Ossetia War, Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu recognised South Ossetia as an independent republic. Georgia does not recognise the existence of South Ossetia as a political entity, and considers most of its territory a part of the Shida Kartli region under Georgian sovereignty, occupied by the Russian army.

It is a graphic account of the 2008 War – in both recollections and photographs - that forms my next journey with the eBook “South Ossetia: Chronicle of Contract Murder”.

As you might imagine, travel to South Ossetia from Georgia is not a straightforward activity:

To get in from Georgia, I hire a car in Tbilisi and drive towards the border until I come upon a Georgian Army checkpoint. The car is thoroughly searched (no doubt due to Georgian plates!), and there follows some questioning about my visit. Fortunately, the soldiers agree to let me through, and I drive another five kilometres until I reach the buffer zone, which is controlled by Russian troops in fortified positions and armoured vehicles. Again, I am stopped, searched, and questioned. Eventually the Russians decide to let me in, and I have to follow a Russian Army staff car, which takes me to the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry in Tskhinvali to register my arrival in this unofficial Republic…

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Black Garden of Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War

The landlocked mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan, in which it lies, and its ethnic Armenian majority, backed by neighbouring Armenia.

In 1988, towards the end of Soviet rule, Azerbaijani troops and Armenian secessionists began a bloody war which left the de facto independent state in the hands of ethnic Armenians when a truce was signed in 1994. Negotiations have so far failed to produce a permanent peace agreement, and the dispute remains one of post-Soviet Europe's "frozen conflicts."

Having just left Azerbaijan, I found “Black Garden” by Thomas de Waal a fascinating account. In this book he chronicles – through research and personal observation - the build-up and the aftermath of the events that led to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of the early 1990s and which continue to resonate today. As such this forms a valuable work to update the previous account of Azerbaijan by Goltz, and form a bridge between the Azerbaijan perspective and the Armenian perspective which will follow later.

For a full review of this complex account of the conflict I shall defer to an analysis by Fariz Ismailzade, editor of "Azeri Voice" Online Journal:

Writing about such a complicated conflict as Nagorno-Karabakh is always hard. The history of the conflict and the attachment to the land by both Armenians and Azeris are so intertwined that it makes the identification and revelation of the truth nearly impossible. Thomas de Waal came the closest to this mission.

His "Black Garden" does an excellent job describing the sorrow and tragedy of both nations and keeping the neutral perspective to the roots, development and current status of one of the bloodiest conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

In an easy-to-read fashion, de Waal travels through the history of the region, revealing past atrocities and the times of happiness and friendship between the two nations. He does so in such a manner, that constantly keeps the reader motivated to move to the next chapter. De Waal smoothly switches back and forth between history and present, personal lives and national politics, human tragedy and political achievements and all of these make the reading absolutely fascinating.

De Waal also reveals one of the most important features of the Karabakh conflict and that is the spiral model of the conflict. He manages to show to the reader how the conflict, which could have been easily prevented, started at low levels and quickly transformed into one of the hotspots in the world. De Waal also manages to describe the inability of the Soviet regime and its leader Mikhail Gorbachev to cope with the growing instability in the region and to prevent bloodshed.

The book also refutes all rumours and assumptions that the roots of the conflict go back to ancient times. De Waal excellently shows that the hatred between the Azeris and Armenians really started in the 19th century.

De Waal tries to show both perspectives to the conflict: the attachment to the land by both warring nations, the importance of cultural centers, such as Shusha, Armenian tragedies in Sumgait and massacres of Azeris in Khojali, the suffering of refugees in Azerbaijan and Armenia, Armenian and Turkish visions of the so called "Genocide of 1915". This all deserves him much credit.

Even describing such a sensitive event as Sumgait pogroms of Armenians, de Waal does not forget to mention how ordinary Azeris were helping to save Armenian lives: "...'We lived in a fourteen-story building with lots of Armenians in it. There were Armenians on the fourteenth floor and we hid them, none of them spent the night at home. In the hospital, people formed vigilance groups, every patient was guarded', says Natevan Tagiyeva [the Azeri citizen of Sumgait]."

The book does, however, open eyes on some of the interesting moments, still unknown or unacceptable for the majority of Armenians and Azeris. The author writes:

"...Uliev [Azeri from Agdam] was the first victim of intercommunal violence in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.." (p.15).

"...Yerevan, the capital of a khanate, was basically a Muslim city that contained no large churches but had six mosques." (pp.74-75)

"..Yet by the 20th century the Azerbaijani people, who had lived in eastern Armenia for centuries, had become its silent guests, marginalized and discriminated against. The Armenians asserted their rights to their homeland at the expense of these people. In 1918-1920, tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were expelled from Zangezur. In the 1940s, tens of thousands more were deported to Azerbaijan to make way for incoming Armenian immigrants from Diaspora. The last cleansing in 1988-1989, got rid of the rest..." (p.80)

Most of the Armenians will probably disagree with the above mentioned statements. Similarly, the Azeris will argue with the following:

"Most of the attackers [in Sumgait] were not well armed but relied on sheer force of numbers... Many of the rioters, however, were carrying improvised weapons-sharpened pieces of metal casing and pipes from the factories-which would have taken time to prepare. This is one of many details that suggest that the violence was planned in at least a rudimentary fashion..."

Karabakh conflict is truly a sorrow and sadness of the Caucasus, but more so, it is a tragedy of two nations, who have been friends for the most of the time. De Waal passes the words of Azeri guy Zaur, who says: "During the war I was always afraid that I would suddenly see Vazgen or Sunik [his Armenian friends in Shusha] through the sights of my gun... I had nightmares about that..."

De Waal concludes with a phrase that must be the guiding principle for the solution of the conflict, which is often ignored by the warring sides: "Any just solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute will entail painful compromises on both sides, and it will have to balance radically opposing principles..."

I shall visit the other protagonist in this complex dispute, Armenia, soon. In the meantime I travel next to Georgia – another former Soviet state with its own complex disputes…

In doing so I effectively retrace the steps taken in my convoluted journey from Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh. I take a ‘marshrutka’ taxi from Stepanakert back to Yerevan in Armenia, via the ‘Lachin corridor’ that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

Still retracing my steps, I take a flight from Yerevan to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Again, I fly with Armavia Airlines for the 45-minute flight that leaves Yerevan Zvartnots airport at 17.35 and touches down (allowing for the time difference) at Tbilisi Novo Alexeyevka airport at 17.20: for £76.30 one-way.

Tbilisi, courtesy of “Stories I Stole” - an account by former Time journalist Wendell Steavenson of her stay there at the end of the twentieth century - will be my home during my stopover in Georgia…

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic

Since the last years of the Soviet Union, the region around the Caucasus mountains has become an area of violent ethnic conflicts. The Armenian-Azerbaijan War for Nagorno-Karabakh, the hostilities in Georgia (South-Ossetia, Abkhazia), the clashes between Ossetians and Ingush within the Russian Federation, and last but not least the two large-scale Russian-Chechen Wars have drawn the attention of the international public to this up to then unknown region at the edge of Europe. But it was precisely this dangerous atmosphere that attracted journalists from all over the world to report directly from this new hot spot.

Thomas Goltz, an American journalist who worked in Turkey during the 1980s, was one of these journalists. In 1991, he was actually on his way to Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan, where he was to take up a position as an adjunct professor of history for the next two years, when he made a detour and landed in Baku, capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Personal contacts gave Goltz a unique inside view into Azerbaijani society in the last months of Soviet rule. He was so fascinated by the atmosphere that he decided to stay for sometime before leaving for Tashkent. After the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991 he returned from a sleepy Tashkent to a boiling Baku to cover the developments in the Caucasus for the next two and a half years.

Based on his experience, Goltz wrote a draft manuscript that was published in Istanbul in 1994 with the title “Requiem for a Would-be Republic” and covers the period from the Azerbaijani declaration of independence in 1991 to the Azerbaijani decision to join the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1993. In addition to the slightly revised text of Requiem, the present book, “Azerbaijan Diary”, includes an epilogue about the time from 1994 to November 1997, which he wrote after a short visit to Baku in the autumn of 1997.

Reading the book it becomes obvious that Goltz saw and experienced quite a lot during his stay in the Caucasus. The reader is overwhelmed by "new facts", unique first-hand observations, portraits of individuals from all spheres of Azerbaijani society, travel accounts, reports from the battlefront in Nagorno-Karabakh (e.g. the Xodjali catastrophe of February 26-27, 1992) and the negotiating table. Goltz also reproduces several interviews, for example with Abulfez Elchibey, the first democratically elected president of Azerbaijan, and Heydar Aliyev, the "Grand Old Man" of Azerbaijani politics, who returned to power in Baku in 1992-93 and rules as Azerbaijani president since that time.

The density and richness of his impressions are both an advantage and disadvantage for the book; sometimes the gripping story outweighs analytical clarity and structure. Goltz's aim is not to prove a thesis or a certain argument, but to disseminate as much information as possible about Azerbaijan and thereby to correct misperceptions and misinformation in the Western press. He states: "I have the arrogance to suggest to the reporters, editorial writers, and, ultimately, scholars of the period and place that they take the time to wade through this opus before furthering the promotion of "facts' based on repetitive errors". Thus, the book with its twenty-five chapters, a prologue and an epilogue is a "quarry" for all who are interested in the recent history of Azerbaijan.

Three maps of the Caucasus and the Azerbaijan Republic and several photographs help the reader to keep track with the fast-paced account and its changing personal and locations. Some (scholarly) readers will not like the first-person style of writing which reminds us of the annotated diary that was the source for the book, but other readers will enjoy "accompanying" Goltz through his fictitious-like "adventures in an oil-rich, war-torn, post-Soviet republic". Personally, I found this account insightful, fascinating and heart-breaking in equal measures.

After a lengthy stay courtesy of a lengthy book, it is time to take my leave of Azerbaijan. Well, sort of. Actually my next destination, Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent but unrecognised state populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. However, the region’s international status remains so far unsettled, although many international organisations, governments and NGOs tend to recognise it as officially part of Azerbaijan, which has had no actual control over the region since 1991.

The next book “Black Garden” by Thomas de Waal, chronicles – through research and personal observation - the build-up and the aftermath of the events that led to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of the early 1990s and which continue to resonate today. As such this forms a valuable work to update the previous account by Goltz, and form a bridge between the Azerbaijan perspective and the Armenian perspective which will follow later.

In plotting out my round the world trip I probably made life difficult for myself here in terms of travel. Despite being ‘officially’ part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is only officially reached via Armenia – which comes later in my travels. Current US government advice states:

It is not possible to enter the self-proclaimed “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh,” which is not recognized by the United States, from Azerbaijan. Travelers are cautioned to avoid travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied areas.

Therefore I travel to Armenia via Georgia in order to arrange a visa for Nagorno-Karabakh at their embassy in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan – the only place one can obtain a visa for this area.

Throwing caution to the wind (and with one eye on my bank balance) I take a cheaper Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Baku to Tbilisi Airport in Georgia. This leaves at 23.30 and arrives at 23.50 for £129 (the flight is actually 1 hour 20 min – the hour is gained by time difference). I then lose my gained hour on a flight from Tbilisi to Yerevan in Armenia via Armavia Airlines. This leaves Tbilisi at 7.00 and arrives at 8.45 after a 45 minute flight for £66.

Upon arriving at the Nagorno Karabagh embassy in Yerevan, the visa procedures are pretty smooth: fill in the application form, bring a couple of pictures, pay the corresponding fee, and you can get the visa stamped on your passport the very same day. Everything’s perfectly normal, except for one thing: once stamped on your passport, Azerbaijan becomes forever off-limits (it is possible to get the visa put on a separate piece of paper if you ask)!!

Public taxis (‘marshrutka’) bound for Stepanakert, NK´s capital city, run daily from Yerevan´s Kilikia Central Bus Station. Once the Yerevan´s tufa-pink outskirts have faded out, the highway then runs southeast parallel to the Arax river towards semi-arid central Armenia. Across the other side of the Arax valley, Turkish territory, the twin peaks of a snowy Mount Ararat reach for the sky. The view of Ararat dissapears once the road reaches the Zangezur region, a longish corridor flanked on both sides by Azeri territory; the Nakhichevan exclave to our right and Azeri mainland on our left side. Iranian petrol tankers aplenty cross this road southwards on their way home. Their moustached drivers sound the horns of their rusty trucks, at the request of the kids who gather alongside the road without much else to do.

The marshrutka makes a necessary logistic stop atop the southern village of Goris before heading for the Lachin corridor. This “umbilical cord” connects Armenia´s mainland with the enclave proper and is, by far, the best road in the whole Caucasus. Unsurprisingly, it has been funded by the Hayastan Fund, the Armenia Diaspora spread all over the world.

A billboard welcomes us to “Free Artsakh”, which is the name Armenians give the enclave. A little further, an immigration officer makes sure documents and passports are in order at the Berdzor checkpoint.

The descent into Stepanakert is an easy run down through stunning scenery. The marshrutka lurches into the bus station where a handful of taxi drivers look in anticipation at the new arrivals. But the Karabakh capital is a small city, a place for walking, so there´s no need to pay any overpriced ride in a Lada.

Non-Armenians are required to register upon arrival at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they are warned against visiting villages in the front line such as Aghdam. Thus I finally find myself in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic – a place which does not officially exist…

Unknown Sands in an Unknown Land: Journeys Around the World’s Most Isolated Country

Turkmenistan was once the world's most feared territory. Since the time of the Mongols, the nomadic tribes of its vast desert wastes were deemed ungovernable. Russians and Persians were captured as slaves and carried off by the fierce Turkmen.

Even now, as an independent country located between the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iran, with one of the planet's largest natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan remains virtually unknown to the outside world. The memoir "Unknown Sands" penetrates this remote and harsh land. This is a personal story that blends two years of adventure with Turkmenistan’s tumultuous history to present an intriguing profile of the country and its people. This former Soviet territory offers a target-rich environment for the unusual including a surreal cult of Presidential personality, ancient ruins of the Silk Road, and a unique, mystical brand of Islam.

Firmly entrenched in the Washington bureaucracy, lawyer Kropf had probably lifted a glass to a few foreign dignitaries in his lifetime, but he'd never pictured himself in the middle of Turkmenistan drinking a vodka toast to Benazir Bhutto out of a large platinum bowl at a family dinner. When Kropf's wife accepted a post as political and economic officer for the American Embassy in Turkmenistan, his Bhutto-toasting fate was sealed.

A lawyer with the U.S. State Department, Kropf, his wife and their two-year-old daughter headed to the black hole of Central Asia (featuring the kind of terrain "medieval Europeans had in mind when they filled in the unknown areas of their maps with dragons"), which borders Afghanistan and Iran and has a long history of being a forbidden land of warriors, conquerors, spies and secrets. Kropf travels to the far corners of a country dismissed as uninhabitable by explorers and still governed by an oppressive regime, revealing through his efficient prose intriguing residents still reeling from Soviet occupation and tip-toeing into the 21st century.

Kropf stays in Turkmenistan after his wife and daughter return to the states in the wake of 9/11, serving humanitarian missions while neighbouring Afghanistan is gripped by chaos. Between the drama are tales of visiting the bazaar, Kropf's comical attempts at haggling (for carpets and traditional Turkmen headwear, among other items) and his discovery of the most delicious melon in the world.

"An unprejudiced look at central Asian culture through the eyes of a curious traveler," is probably the best way in which to describe “Unknown Sands”.

This book provides the only real view of a world that even in the 21st century hides behind an iron curtain. John brings to life real and tangible descriptions of a world really only known to most Westerners through hearsay and as a side note to the War on Terror.

John takes you with him on his journeys by foot, bus, airplane, and, usually, four-wheel vehicle throughout the country. The full colour panoply of sights, sounds, and, unhappily for John, smells translate literally to the reader enveloping you into the world surround him at the time, from the woman jabbing his ankles with a luggage cart in the Frankfurt airport on his trip out to the pride of his driver in learning to pronounce the name of their American vehicle.

The country John transports you to has the intensity of its underlying cultures that have existed from well before the time of Ghengis Khan with a strong overtone of Soviet political power, which has influenced the last 70 some years. Soviet era cement block apartment buildings share the same atmosphere as centuries old mosques that themselves share the place with new monuments to the country's leader with this last to an almost comical degree.

Also, although John's mission while in Turkmenistan was to supervise USAID programs, his journeys cannot be said to be mere reports. You get the picture that much of what Westerners must do is not only provide the money and the know-how, but reawaken the prior pride in the country's history through a respectful curiosity. We should not treat any country's past as something quaint from a history book, but rather a vibrant component to understand who these people truly are.

In this respect John opens our eyes to a strange, but admirable country that lies on the edge of our imagination. (Thanks to K. Mortensen)

Again, mindful of warning about local airlines I opt to leave Turkmenistan via an expensive German Lufthansa flight to neighbouring Azerbaijan (my next destination) – vowing to take a cheaper bus or train on the next leg to save money!!

The flight itself is pleasant enough and much quicker than the 19+ hours quoted to travel by bus. I leave Ashgabat at the ungodly hour of 2.15 in the morning and am touching down at Heydar Aliyev International in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, by 3.50. The only downside is the cost - £515 for a 1 hour 35 minute flight…

Still, I arrive in one piece (if a little groggy) to Azerbaijan – an oil-rich land which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 amid political turmoil and internal strife (as well as a war with neighbouring Armenia fought in the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh).

My stay here is courtesy of “Azerbaijan Diary” by Western correspondent Thomas Goltz of which more soon.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Wars of Terror: Afghanistan Across the Decades with ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns”

My next destination is, inevitably, much better known than Tajikistan - I am travelling to Afghanistan, courtesy of the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khalad Hosseini.

Anyone whose heart strings were pulled by Khaled Hosseini's first, hugely successful novel, “The Kite Runner”, should be more than satisfied with this follow-up. Hosseini is skilled at telling a certain kind of story, in which events that may seem unbearable - violence, misery and abuse - are made readable. He doesn't gloss over the horrors his characters live through, but something about his direct, explanatory style and the sense that you are moving towards a redemptive ending makes the whole narrative, for all its tragedies, slip down rather easily.

“The Kite Runner” was the tale of two Afghan boys struggling to live decent lives amid the warfare and ethnic rivalries of contemporary Afghanistan, and this is the female counterpart. It is both the tale of two women, and a tale of two cities - Herat and Kabul. At the beginning, we are dropped into the world of Mariam, a young girl living alone with her unmarried mother on the outskirts of Herat. And what a sad world it is. Poor Mariam is bullied by her epileptic mother, and she lives for her weekly visits from her insincere, charming father who runs Herat's cinema, and whose real family she longs to join.

We don't stagnate with Mariam in Herat, however - Hosseini likes to move his narratives along - and before many pages have been turned Mariam's mother has died, and her unfeeling father has married her off to an acquaintance from Kabul. Despite the trauma of going to live with a complete stranger who insists that she must wear the burka and hide upstairs when visitors arrive, a tentative hopefulness begins to grow in Mariam that she may be able to win some affection from her husband, especially when she becomes pregnant.

But Hosseini vividly brings home what life is like for women in a society in which they are valued only for reproduction. Once she has suffered a series of miscarriages, Mariam's marriage becomes a prison: "Mariam was afraid. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not."

Just as the impatient reader might start to wonder what Hosseini is going to do next with his narrative energy, we switch from Mariam's life to that of a neighbour, the young Laila, who is growing up in a liberal family with a father who believes in her education. This means that we suddenly see Mariam from the outside: Laila never speaks to her, but one day she "passed Rasheed, the shoemaker, with his burka-clad wife, Mariam, in tow". In a flash we see, as Hosseini clearly intends us to, how behind every silent burka in Afghanistan is an individual with a hidden history.

As well as an education, ambitions and opinions, Laila even has a respectful and intelligent boyfriend, who goes with her to the cinema and on a trip to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan. By putting Mariam and Laila in contrast like this, Hosseini is, you feel, not just trying to burrow into individual lives, but also trying to explain the complexities of Afghan society to the reader.

That sense that you are listening to a history lesson as much as experiencing a fiction becomes stronger as the narrative moves on. Hosseini is almost too careful to describe for ignorant westerners the political background to these women's lives, from the Soviet occupation that ruled Laila's childhood to the growing strength of the mujahideen that her brothers join, amid "rising rumours that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war". Once the Soviets are ousted, he takes an even more didactic turn, spelling out how the mujahideen turned from idealised freedom fighters to oppressors. "It was dizzying how quickly everything unravelled. The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism ... Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed ... The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other."

But Hosseini doesn't get bogged down in the ins and outs of Afghan politics. His energetic narrative speeds on through the political and domestic worlds, as we move through the tragedies that fall on Laila's family. Eventually we see her, orphaned and alone, allowing herself to become Rasheed's second wife. You might think this novel is becoming too melodramatic, as one horror succeeds another, with rockets blowing families apart and attempted escapes and even murder, alongside the beatings and whippings and threats that make up the women's daily experiences. But when I started to think this I remembered women I met in Kabul, and how many of them had stories to tell almost as melodramatic as this.

Where Hosseini's novel begins to sing is in depicting the slowly growing friendship of the two wives in the face of the horrific abuse from their shared husband. Laila looks at Mariam, and "For the first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured. If she stayed, would this be her own face, Laila wondered?" The women's only hope of affection or solidarity is with one another, and they survive not just physically but also emotionally by putting their faith in each other and in their love for Laila's children.

Hosseini does not challenge the usual western view of Afghanistan, but he does enrich it - he adds greater knowledge and understanding to it, and makes the Afghans come alive as loving, feeling individuals. There is something marvellously hopeful in this process, and if there is a problem with the novel, it is not with the plot or the intentions behind it, but with the neatness of its narrative style. Hosseini's prose is stolidly direct, and he tends to explain away not only the political but also the personal, presenting each experience in a wrapper on which the emotion is carefully labelled. Whether it is love - "She had fallen for Tariq. Hopelessly and desperately" - or hate - "What harmful thing had she wilfully done to this man to warrant his malice?" - each distinct emotion is spelled out a touch too clearly.

His desire to believe in the eventual redemption of Afghanistan means that the ending verges on the schmaltzy. Undoubtedly the removal of the Taliban was positive for Afghan women, and we shouldn't be surprised if his characters draw strength from it. But in the last chapter, as the rains return, the cinemas open, the children play and the orphanages are rebuilt, the reader cannot help but feel that Hosseini's understandable longing for a beautiful return to life for the oppressed people of Afghanistan has made for an ending that is just a little flimsy.

(Review in italics by Natasha Walter. The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2007)

For me, this novel was a little too pat, i.e. sympathetic characters overcome terrible adversity and finally triumph to reach a happy ending. As Natasha states above, Hosseini’s “desire to believe in the eventual redemption of Afghanistan means that the ending verges on the schmaltzy.”

I can’t blame him for that on a personal level, but I can’t help feeling that this adds a gloss that isn’t there, to the current straits of many Afghans in the country today. That said, there can be no disputing that Hosseini, with his two novels, has brought a sense of the lives of ordinary Afghans to a vast Western readership which might otherwise have been indifferent or downright hostile to their fate.

I now move on to Afghanistan’s rather less well-known neighbour, Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan was once the world's most feared territory. Since the time of the Mongols, the nomadic tribes of its vast desert wastes were deemed ungovernable. Russians and Persians were captured as slaves and carried off by the fierce Turkmen. Even now, as an independent country located between the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iran, with one of the planet's largest natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan remains virtually unknown to the outside world.

Therefore it is with some trepidation that I set out from Kabul to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. There are no direct flights from Kabul to Ashgabat, and in selecting flights you should be careful on two counts – safety and price!

The British FCO warns against the use of a number of Afghan airlines due to safety concerns so it is worth paying a bit extra, even it if means an inconvenient connection. There is a difference between adventurous and reckless! That said, you should beware of ridiculously inflated air prices. Having been quoted over £3000 to fly via Delhi (with Air India) to Ashgabat; I find a more direct and less pricey flight with Turkish Airlines that leaves Kabul at midday and arrives in Istanbul at 16.15. After a rather lengthy wait I then leave on a connecting flight for Ashgabat at 23.35, arriving 05.10 the next day – for a less pricey £653 one-way!

My trip in Turkmenistan is courtesy of “Unknown Sands” by John W. Kropf. A lawyer with the U.S. State Department, Kropf, his wife and their two-year-old daughter travelled to the far corners of a country still reeling from Soviet occupation and, later, the impact of the 9/11 attacks (which occurred whilst he was there).

Hurramabad – a Russian Perspective on a Tajik Tragedy

"Hurramabad" is a collection of short stories on the theme of ethnic Russians in Tajikistan. The Russians of Tajikistan, who arrived as Soviet administrators and skilled workers, emigrated en masse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the lead-up to the civil war.

The English translation of "Hurramabad" includes seven short stories, only one of which does not have ethnic Russians as the protagonist(s). Russians (and other ethnicities) had many reasons for leaving Tajikistan. Fleeing a country at war is obvious enough, but there were many other factors, including rising nationalism and economic problems. I don’t suggest here that Russians were the primary victims of the war, as it was Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pamiris who made up the overwhelming majority of casualty figures. But many Russians were victims in the broad sense. Volos should know, as his family was forced to leave this country where he had been born and raised.

Volos’ book falls into the category of historical fiction, as real people, places and events form the backdrop for the fictional protagonists. But the fiction is barely fiction. “Hurramabad” is obviously Dushanbe, and the events in the book all match up nicely with what actually happened. That may lead some readers into not seeing as large a picture as those who know the history of Tajikistan. For example, in one passage men have a cantankerous debate about which public square to go protests at, an anecdote that lets the informed reader know that the date is April-May 1992. In another instance two Russian women discuss riots that occurred in February, an obvious reference to the February 1990 riots and demonstrations in Dushanbe. And “that snake Yusupov” is clearly Shodmon Yusuf, the then leader of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, who scared the hell out of ethnic Russians when he got on the radio and strongly hinted that bad things may happen to non-Tajiks (although in the novel the event is out of its proper place in time).

In the first short story an elderly Russian lady is being walked up a hill to a graveyard by her grandson. On the way to the grave of her husband she recounts – for the hundredth time – how she arrived in Tajikistan, or rather the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1930. Her account of a boat ride up the Amu Darya and the Panj river is one of trepidation, as anti-Soviet Basmachis rebels still make incursions across the river from Afghanistan. She has no idea if her husband, sent as a Soviet administrator, is still alive. As she struggles up the hill towards the graveyard you are left with the image of a dying old woman who, despite not being a Tajik or other local nationality, knows nothing but Tajikistan, and who will never leave.

The second, and my favorite, is the story of a Russian man who never lived in Tajikistan, but who became enchanted with the country and desperately wanted to “go native” and stay in the country. Abandoning his wife and children in Russian he takes a low-paying job in a bazaar and marries a Tajik. He becomes fluent in Tajik, much to the confusion of locals who mistake him for Tatar, as almost no Russians ever bothered to learn the language, even if born and raised in Tajikistan. Desperate to be accepted, but considered an outsider by locals, the man suffers through his daily existence as the country falls apart on the streets of Hurramabad (Dushanbe). And then finally, there is a chance to be accepted as a local… and it’s not what he wanted.

In the next story, an old Russian lady welcomes what she thinks is a harmless grass snake into her home while expressing her desire to remain in Tajikistan, whatever the terrible consequences may be. Nothing is what it seems, especially the snake. I guess this is where the English and Literature students take over and pull out the symbolism, metaphor, whatever… I get it, but I didn’t dwell to much as I was eager to move on to the next story.

In ‘A Decent Stone for a Father’s Grave’ you already know what the story is about. Searching out a decent gravestone the Russian protagonist encounters locals trying to buy his possessions at a price suitable to be asked by a man desperate to leave the country and who can’t bring all his possessions with him. The greed and opportunism of a local prospective buyer of the Russian man’s car is then put into perspective when the Russian finds out that the Tajik man who could build the gravestone to his specific needs was executed on the street recently.

The other stories include the kidnapping of foreign journalists by a local warlord, the trading of a kidnapped Tajik girl for a weapon, the theft of a Russian man’s dream house by armed commanders of the winning side, and the account of a man waiting to leave to Russia.

And the writing style? It’s quite clearly realism. The descriptions of activities on the streets and in the bazaars is nothing grand, but it’s gives you a clear image in your head. And the stories are mostly of very small events punctuated by the crisis droning on in the back ground. Things seem normal, and then you are given passages like this:

“The crucified city was howling in fear and pain; the air itself seemed full of violence, rape, and robbery. It would have been better if the telephones had not been functioning at all, because rumours of what was going on in the outskirts of Hurramabad were enough to drive you mad.”

But at times the characters’ – and indeed the author’s – love for the land is clear:

“ ‘I’m a foreigner here now,’ Dubrovin forced himself to say, shrugging his shoulders. He frowned as he repeated the word to himself. A foreigner, a foreigner! He found it to be a meaningless aggregate of sounds, because everything around him gave it the lie: this hilly, jagged land lit by a reddish moon in which two generations of his ancestors had been laid to rest; the hot violet sky in which the pure stars twinkled moistly; the smell of sunbaked dust and camel thorn; the chirring of the crickets; the outbursts of barking dogs in the kishlak”.

Volos is not often this florid in his writing style, and he wisely saves it for the right moment. Overall, you are given a vivid image of the place and time. You may not get all the references, and having been in the country may help you to imagine things more “accurately.” But you should get the same satisfaction even if you don’t understand the war, the country, or even the sprinkling of Tajiki. And despite the cruelty on the part of some of the locals, the book does show affection for the people and the country – so many of which were victims of the civil war.

(Christian Bleuer,

My next destination is, inevitably, much better known than Tajikistan – and similarly the author is likely to be more familiar to many than Volos. I am travelling to Afghanistan, courtesy of the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khalad Hosseini (also known for his debut novel “The Kite-Runner”).

And so I brave the charms of Dushanbe airport once again, catching a Kam Air flight at 5.30 in the morning and arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan an hour later (for the eye-watering amount of $230 economy). I spend a few hours in the new International section of the airport before heading to the slightly dowdier domestic terminal to catch another Kam Air flight to my destination, Heart (another hour-long flight leaving at midday for a slightly less eye-watering $122.)

Herat Airport also known as Herat Airfield, was established in the 1950s with American aid Herat Airport was initially used for military purposes. Later it was opened for civil use, although it has had to be extensively repaired following Allied forces bombing in 2001. It is now opened up to international air flights and is known as Herat International Airport – although it retains its militaristic feel, a reminder of the country’s recent and ongoing conflict…

Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan

From one Central Asian country that is still reeling from the after-effects of independence from the USSR, I travel to a neighbouring country undergoing similar growing pains: Kyrgyzstan. For this leg of my journey I am reading “Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan”, an account by British writer Saffia Farr of her time spent there as the ex-pat wife of a water-engineer husband working on an aid project to bring safe drinking water to the countries outlying regions. As with the previous book, this is a uniquely personal account by a non-native: yet one which is both insightful and engaging, and which explores the process of a Western outsider coming to terms with what is initially an alien environment.

Where this book differs from its predecessor is in its narrator; Saffia Farr, an Englishwoman from Bristol who travelled with her water-engineer husband to Kyrgyzstan just before the country’s revolution. Complicating matters further was the fact that she was expecting her first baby as she arrived in this remote, largely unknown country. Indeed, the Revolution of the title is as much a reference to the personal revolution precipitated by her pregnancy as the wider political revolution going on in the country.

Giving away the ending of a book is not a good idea in a review; but knowing the end of this book will not spoil the experience of reading it.

“Revolution Baby” is not a novel, although to many readers some of it may seem stranger than fiction' - this is an account of Saffia Farr's experiences living in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

The revolution of the (brilliant) title comes very near the end of the tale - in 2005, Kyrgyz people overthrew Akayev, the country's corrupt president who "only built the Switzerland of Central Asia for his family". Saffia Farr credits an opposition politician with this last quote but it demonstrates her own lightness of touch and humour evident throughout the book.

It is really interesting to learn about the politics and history of this country, part of the former USSR (so remote Rough Guide hasn't found it yet'); but the abiding sense I've taken from Revolution Baby is of the writer herself.

Now living in Tockington, close to where she was brought up, Saffia Farr engages us with accounts of how vulnerable she felt expecting her first baby in a grey, grimly poor country.

We share her very real concerns (like worrying about being infected with AIDS from a less than hygienic blood test) but admire her ability to just get on with living.

And soon, the vertical concrete shoeboxes, inside one of which is her home apartment, become fascinating and even attractive - "I started to appreciate that tenements had different architectural styles; curves and crosses of concrete repeated over facades to create striking geometric patterns." Saffia's photographs deserve more exposure than the reproductions in the centre of this book.

The supporting cast in Revolution Baby is the Bishkek International Women's Club, a bizarre but comfortingly constant collection of ex-pats'. Playgroup' is the backdrop to Saffia's maternal pre-occupations ranging from holding out against having a nanny to Baby Tom's delayed' walking ability.

No review of the book would be complete without mention of the Kyrgyz food and drink that sounds so unappetising to western' ears - koumys (fermented mare's milk), parts of sheep's heads and plaited horse intestine sausages for instance. "The meat hall at Ortosai bazaar is not somewhere to visit if you are verging on vegetarianism."

And the pervading presence of vodka is intriguing - Soviet influence untouched by Islamic sensibilities in this region buffeted by so many greater powers.

In the book's Forward', Brigid Keenan recommends Revolution Baby to anyone who has ever had to travel abroad with a spouse. (Saffia is in Kyrgyzstan with her water-engineer husband Matthew.) I think the book has a much wider impact than this - I look forward to reading more of Saffia Farr's writing.

(Review in italics by Emily Thwaite, for which grateful acknowledgement is given.)

Flying regionally in Central Asia is probably not the safest thing in the world. That being said, fellow travellers have described it as being rather exciting and so with a degree of trepidation I take a plane from Bishtek to Dushanbe, in neighbouring Tajikistan.

The planes that fly between Bishkek and Dushanbe are all local (Tajik Airlines) and are quite small, seating fewer than 50 people, goats, etc.. The flight itself is quite dramatic, as the planes fly at a low altitude over the very dramatic Fergana Valley and Ayni Pass. A one way ticket cost $150, although cheaper options are probably avaialble if you know where to look…

The flight arrives into the international airport in Dushanbe. This is a not the most welcoming experience! The arrival gate, in the Customs Area, is a free for all, with fellow passengers pushing to get ahead in line. Customs and border enforcement can be seen blatantly receiving bribes and the arrival area is without electricity when I arrive...although fortunately it is daytime.

Thus I arrive in Tajikistan ready for the next leg of my journey, “Hurramabad” by native author Andrei Volos. This book is actually a series of novellas that describe various perspectives on the 1992 civil war that followed independence – largely from the viewpoint of the Russian community who suffered some of the worst violence and many of whom fled the country as a result. The Hurramabad of the title is a city, which is a very thinly disguised depiction of the capital Dushanbe.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Taxi to Tashkent: Two Years with the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan

Before I commence my review of “Taxi To Tashkent”, an account of two years’ spent in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley by American Peace Corps volunteer Tom Fleming, I’d like to pause and reflect on my recent travels.

It occurs to me that it has been 13 books and nearly 6 months since the last book authored by a writer native to the country in question (“The Oath”, by Chechnyan Khassan Baiev – who himself wrote the book in exile in the US). This is not through want of trying, on my part, to find a native authored book for each subsequent leg of my journey – they are simply not out there. Of course, this is no doubt partly down to the lack of English translations (a necessity due to my shameful monolinguistic status) but I feel there is something more. In each post-Soviet state I have encountered there is a sense of a nation re-merging from the cultural repression imposed upon it by the former USSR. Under Soviet rule individual national identity - be it religion, arts, literature or even language - were subjugated under the Russian autocracy: even states within Russia itself, which previously had their own cultural identity.

And it is the issue of language which is most pertinent here, and which perhaps explains the lack of native-authored literature for these places. Not only were the inhabitants of these countries stripped of their native languages in favour of the dominant Russian, but in the process they were stripped of their literary heritage – as only those works deemed in keeping with the Communist ethos were ever translated into Russian. The rest of many nation’s literature disappeared along with the native tongues… one can only hope that – along with these newly independent states’ religious and cultural freedoms of expression – a new indigenous literary culture will emerge for these areas.

In the meantime, I have been reliant upon largely Western perspectives for the huge Russian and former Soviet area (with the exception of Victor Pelevin’s brilliant “Sacred Book of the Werewolf” in Moscow back in November 2010). Of course, these perspectives should not be dismissed simply because they are written by ‘foreigners’, but inevitably such accounts will have they own limited focus – be it one of scientific research, travelogue, personal adventure or aid worker…

Which brings me neatly on to the next book on my journey: “Taxi to Tashkent” by 40-year-old American Peace Corps volunteer Tom Fleming. This is a diary format account of two years which he spent in Uzbekistan, teaching AIDS prevention and sex education in the conservative Fergana Valley region. One can hardly imagine a more illustrative example of East – West culture clashes than this, and this interesting book certainly bears this out.

I must admit it took me some time to warm to Fleming as a narrator here… from the outset he comes across as a brash – almost stereotypical – American. The fact that the first chapter is called “Shock and Awe” (referring to his initial disorientation in his new surroundings, but, rather oddly, using a term more commonly associated with overwhelming military force used by US campaigns in the Middle East), seemed to bear this out. Similarly, his early reaction to the unfamiliar locale and people of Uzbekistan appears to be bordering on paranoia:

“ “GOO MORNING!” Uzbek schoolboys shouted, staring with the intensity of vultures as we walked past them.”

To an outsider this seems a slightly churlish description of native children trying out a welcome phrase on a new intake of foreigners…

However, Fleming quickly establishes himself to be a perceptive and eloquent narrator – leading myself as a reader to question whether some of my initial reaction was in itself a stereotypical assumption of the US Peace Corps on my part.

Indeed, Fleming himself is no fan of the Peace Corps’ overly bureaucratic set-up, quickly identifying that administrative processes and internal politics seem to take precedence over actually making a difference to the people the organisation purports to be helping.

Initially, Fleming’s reaction is one of frustration, then rebellion (he and two other friends rent an apartment in Tashkent against Peace Corps rules – and under threat of expulsion – rather than stay in their billeted accommodation), and ultimately anger at the impotence of the mission to make an effective difference. Eventually Fleming strikes out on his own, making rogue presentations on AIDS awareness to communities where discussions of sexual relationships are largely taboo, although frustrations at the long-term effects of his – and his fellow volunteers’ – assignments remain throughout the book.

Indeed, one gets a sense that the real achievements made in Fleming’s assignment are painted in much smaller – though no less impactful – brush strokes. The real story here is not one of US volunteers making a difference on a developing Central Asian nation – rather it is the difference that Uzbekistan and its inhabitants made upon this particular American volunteer. From his initial feeling of paranoia Fleming appears to make some genuine friends during his time in the country. Murat is one individual who springs to mind – a gold-toothed individual who delights in lewd comments (mainly involving his ‘big whale’ and local waitresses), except when piously observing Ramadam; also Timur the Pink Floyd loving barber; and Gulnora - a young student whom Fleming initially takes under his wing to teach English, but whom ultimately he engages in a non-sexual (yet still taboo-breaking, in Uzbek culture) relationship and who dreams of breaking beyond the traditional confines of subservient matrimony. I must admit that this latter relationship left me feeling slightly uncomfortable – there is never a chance of Fleming and Gulnora forming a full relationship in this context, and Fleming’s leaving of Uzbekistan – counterpointed by a tearful phone conversation from Gulnora – seems almost callous and rather egocentric:

“I must go now, Gulnora. Please remember that you helped me out so much.. Promise me that you’ll always remember that.”

Her voice was empty. “I promise, Tom.”

I hung up the phone... a thought came to me that if I were writing a book about all this, my character would say, It was then that I realised that I was ready to leave this country. And that’s exactly how I felt.”

So much for Gulnora. One is tempted to read some sort of colonialist subtext into this exchange but perhaps we are back to my own stereotypes here.

It occurs to me that I have overlooked some of the key descriptions of Uzbekistan in this book, which Fleming provides, and as I say, he is an eloquent and engaging narrator. Certain scenes that linger are his description of his initial billet, which he quickly escapes:

“Across the courtyard the mother picked pebbles from the rice she had spread across a tabletop. She watched nonchalantly as the boy yanked down his shorts and squatted, dropping a little brown turd onto the concrete porch. The boy looked at me with a proud smile…I sat on the sagging bed staring at four dingy walls, my baggage resting by the door. This was my new home in the city of Quva. I would be living here for two years.”

This is a description that makes one wince, and many of the other descriptions in this book make one wince also – generally because of the painful culture clash between well-meaning West and uncomprehending East (most notably the ill-fated staging by one of Fleming’s feminist compatriots of “The Vagina Monologues” in an ultra-conservative district) – but also in recognition of the awful legacy left upon this, and neighbouring nations, by the former Soviet state.

There is a particularly poignant description by Fleming of a trip to the Uzbek coast of the Aral Sea. This is the Sea that Christopher Robins describes in the previous book on Kazakhstan as being decimated by a disastrous Soviet-imposed cotton-growing scheme which involved diverting the Aral’s two main tributaries. As a result, from 1960 to 1998, the sea's surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%. The region's once prosperous fishing industry has been essentially destroyed, bringing unemployment and economic hardship. The Aral Sea region is also heavily polluted. Whilst there is now an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan to save and replenish the North Aral Sea, Fleming’s description of the ongoing cotton production in the southern Uzbek region – further adding to this ecological disaster zone - is heartbreaking…

To summarise then, this is a book that is largely about Tom Fleming’s personal development through the 2 years he spent in Uzbekistan, yet thanks to Fleming’s engaging writing style, we are able to gain insights into the wider nation and also into the realities and – in many instances – disappointments of Western intervention, no matter how well-meaning, in developing countries. Indeed, a month after Fleming left Uzbekistan, the Peace Corps withdrew from the entire country.

From one Central Asian country that is still reeling from the after-effects of independence from the USSR, I travel to a neighbouring country undergoing similar growing pains: Kyrgyzstan. For this leg of my journey I am reading “Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan”, an account by British writer Saffia Farr of her time spent there as the ex-pat wife of a water-engineer husband working on an aid project to bring safe drinking water to the countries outlying regions. As with the previous book, this is a uniquely personal account by a non-native: yet one which is both insightful and engaging, and which explores the process of a Western outsider coming to terms with what is initially an alien environment.

I decide to take the quick and reasonably priced option (€145 one-way) of flying to my next destination, and so I make a trip to Tashkent International Airport, seven miles from the city centre, on Friday. I arrive by midday as I am told passengers need to arrive 3 hours before departure (the flight leaves at 16:35). The airport has all the amenities one would hope for in any airport, and the modestly sized AR8 airplane takes off - and lands – on time. So I arrive after a journey time of 1 hour 20 minutes – in Kyrgyzstan’s decidedly Soviet-looking Manas International Airport at 18:55 (allowing for the hour’s time difference) just north of the capital city of Bishkek, which will be my home for this leg of my trip.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

In Search of Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared

I've heard it said that since the release of the British satirical film 'Borat', tourism to Kazakhstan has rocketed. Having neither seen the film, nor being remotely inclined to, I cannot pass any comment on how likely that is. But having read Chris Robbins' book about the country - "Searching for Kazakhstan", I can say I hope it's true. Kazakhs deserve the economic input of tourism, and the country is certainly one that should be explored.

Sadly most travellers will not get the access that Robbins (journalist and award-winning non-fiction author, who speaks Russian and has all the right connections) was lucky enough to obtain... but even so... it's a place to add to the wish-list.

Chris Robbins is tempted to visit Kazakhstan by a chance encounter on a plane. On a flight to Moscow a fellow-passenger from Little Rock tells him that he is en route to Kazakhstan to meet his future wife... he also tells him that Apples are from Kazakhstan ~ which would have been a much better title for the book.

Although in traditional travelogue style Robbins tells us about his wanderings in this unknown country squeezed south of Russia between China and the Caspian Sea, a country as big as Western Europe but virtually unheard of until that movie, what he is really setting out to do is explain Kazakhstan. As he tells one of his friends on a subsequent visit... he wants to put across "a sense of Kazakh courage and heart... Unless people understand where Kazakhstan has come from, they won't be able to appreciate what it has become."

He certainly manages to get that sense of the Kazakhs across and to convey just how far the country has come, how quickly, how unfairly it has sometimes been misrepresented in the West and how the people and their president know they still have a ways to go.

He does this by clearly having done his research before he went. This isn't a wanderer's tale by any means. This is a project. Robbins has clear ideas of the places he wants to see, and probably (in general terms) the stories he wants to tell, before he arrives in the country. After all, he freely admits before he starts that he "has a publisher" - so the story is already sold... he just needs to fill in the details. That shouldn't detract, however, because the details he finds to fill in are serendipitous.

Getting locked in a subterranean disco where even the bouncers can't let you out, probably wasn't part of the plan.

Finding your friend has connections to the president might make you hopeful of gaining an interview... but presumably doesn't lead you to anticipate an invitation for a three day presidential tour, access to some remote and forbidden places, further meetings stretching over a two-year period, including late-night conversations about what it was like to grow up on a collective and then "betray" your family by joining the communist party and rising through the ranks, unashamedly doing the things that were done in that rise (albeit in the name of getting what your state needed from the system).

Conversations with President Nazarbayev provide an "official insider's" view of the country and its relations with its neighbours. A view that is balanced by other journeys with more ordinary people... journeys to visit the berkutchy (the eagle ruler) who hunts with a golden eagle as casually as a falconer would fly a Merlin... or to find a jewellery maker whose wares fund his labour of love restoring the grave goods from ancient Kazakh noblemen - goods which suggest links with the fables of our country the Knights of the Round Table, the Holy Grail ... or to find an old man who treasures the political disagreements at his kitchen table for the very fact that they can happen, a man who survived the Gulag.

With witty asides and the usual run of travellers' tale anecdotes, the real stories are told in straightforward journalistic style. There are few passages that I found moving (the Gulag survivor aside), but much that is shocking in terms of the horrors inflicted in past times, which always become more real when individualised.

The real gift of the book, though, is in the simple telling of things that we already know and things that we don't... things linked only by the fact that they are all part of Kazakhstan's hard-won heritage. The nuclear tests and the precise moment when Sakharov finally understood the reality of his work. The destruction of the Aral Sea... and the endeavours to bring it back from the brink. Covert operations with the USA to deal with nuclear material that the Russians couldn't take back because they'd (a) forgotten about it, (b) wouldn't be able to account for it since it was 'missing' from the original records and (c) couldn't afford to deal with it if it was returned. We travel with early English explorers and learn of the pre-flight rituals of the cosmonauts. Spend time in the Gulag Archipelago with its author, and discover how he is viewed in the country today... share similar reflections on Trotsky and Dostoevsky who have their own strong connections to the area.

It is still a country of contradictions. One coveted on all sides (by China, by Russia, by Turkey) but which chose to be nuclear free. A country which, when the higher echelons were accused of political assassination, invited the FBI to investigate - but is gradually turning its economic interests towards China. A country ruled by a firm presidential power, but determined to become democratic enough to win the approval of the US & the UK. A country sophisticated enough to introduce a new currency virtually overnight, but one where barter was commonplace right at the end of the 20th century. A place with a wealth of minerals that is only just beginning to reap their rewards. Where nomads might still hunt with eagles, but Sir Norman Foster is the architect of choice for civic structures. A country with some of the most beautiful, unspoilt places on earth and without a doubt some of the most devastated wasteland ever created by man.

It is a place that is not easy to visit - not because you won't be welcome, the Kazakh hospitality is legendary (though vegetarians might struggle a little) - but because of sheer scale of the emptiness. 15 million people spread over 1 million square miles. (Compare with Britain's 59 million crammed into 93,000 square miles). The steppe is bleak and more vast that we can imagine. The summer heat and the winter cold are extremes beyond the experience of Western Europeans. Infrastructure is still in its infancy, and transport vehicles often struggling on well into their old age. But it is a place that Robbins will tempt you to... to see the original wild apple orchards, to smell the crushed wormwood, to the beautiful mountains, and even the much reduced Aral Sea is still an inland wonder of a kind. There are city parks, and superb new architecture. The soviet era remnants are slowly being swept away... but it is still a place steeped in the momentous history of the 20th century - its politics, its literature, its science, all have roots or have left traces here.

Stylistically simple, ill-served by the choice of cover design and illustrated throughout with Bob Gale's ink-sketches, it has the feel of somewhat naïve book that doesn't do justice to the wealth of information it contains.

Not a book that makes you immediately want to go back and start the journey over again... but one that you will find yourself dipping back into for half-remembered facts and amusement... and one that might just make you want to go see for yourself.
(Thanks to Lesley Mason)

And so, without further ado, I continue my global trek to Uzbekistan. Having spent nearly two days on a train in my last transfer – as well as various modes of travel during my stay in Kazakhstan, including some hair-raising helicopter trips! – I opt to fly from Almaty to Tashkent (the Uzbek capital) on an Uzbekistan Airways 764 flight. For £90 I get a 1 hour, 50 minute non-stop journey, and find myself in another former Soviet Republic struggling to cope in a post-independence era. On this occasion my stopover is courtesy of American Peace Corps volunteer Tom Fleming, with his account of a two-year posting in the country entitled “Taxi to Tashkent”.

The Road to Miran: Travels in the Forbidden Zone of Xinjiang

I now visit another 'Autonomous Region' of China - Xinjiang - courtesy of "The Road to Miran" by German author and traveller Christa Paula.

Christa Paula, an intrepid young student of Asian art and archaeology, set off in 1989 to explore an area closed to Westerners as well as to most Chinese, and one which is firmly under military rule. Tall and blonde, she travelled for the most part incognito, disguised in a Pathan cap, old grey jacket and big padded trousers. Her goal was Miran, the ancient Buddhist site of second-century wall paintings. In the company of Chang, a maverick taxi driver, Christa Paula travelled through an area dotted with nuclear testing sites, forced labour camps and mines in which prisoners dig and process asbestos without protective clothing. She discovered that villages which exist on maps are now radiation-contaminated ghost towns, and she witnessed everywhere the seeds of discontent and political unrest.

This book is a truly engaging and insightful account of this remote and politically isolated region. A full review which does this book justice will follow soon - however, time constraints mean that I cannot complete this just now. As soon as I have finished an appropriate account of this fascinating trip – which it truly deserves - I will update this entry.

In the meantime, I take my leave (for now, there will be several more trips in the future journey) of the massive landmass that is China, and make my way to the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, courtesy of Christopher Robbins’ “In Search of Kazakhstan.”

I decide to take the twice-weekly train (N895) that links China with Kazakhstan, starting in Ürümqi and running to Almaty. The train is called the 'Zhibek Zholy' and it has modern air-conditioned soft class (4-berth sleeper compartments) and hard class (open-plan bunks). A Chinese restaurant car runs from Ürümqi to Druzhba and a Kazak restaurant car runs from the Chinese frontier at Druzhba to Almaty.

The ticket is very reasonably priced at 834 yuan - £78 - and is sorted out by a local (Ürümqi) travel agent with minimal fuss. He charges 100 yuan commission for each ticket which is fine given the smooth transaction. His name is Steven Zhang ( and he speaks excellent English.

What makes the price even more of a bargain is the fact that I get the tickets in advance at my hotel and I am the only person in a four bed cabin on this journey – an unexpected luxury! And such a luxury should not be underestimated on a trip of this nature: despite travelling to a neighbouring country, this is no short-hop trip: the train leaves Ürümqi at 23:58 on Monday, arriving at the Kazakh border at 09.20 on Tuesday, before finally pitching up in Almaty station at 06:40 on Wednesday…

It takes a long time to cross the border, about three hours wait on each side but I have to say it wasn't a bad place to wait, looking out at the empty steppe and the mountains. I would recommend getting this train, it's quite an experience and a very comfortable way to travel from China to Kazakhstan.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Bones of the Master: A Journey to a Secret Mongolia

In 1959 a young monk named Tsung Tsai escapes the Red Army troops that destroy his monastery, and flees alone three thousand miles across a China swept by chaos and famine. Knowing his fellow monks are dead, himself starving and hunted, he is sustained by his mission: to carry on the teachings of his Buddhist meditation master, who was too old to leave with his disciple.

Nearly forty years later Tsung Tsai — now an old master himself — persuades his American neighbour, maverick poet George Crane, to travel with him back to his birthplace in the at the edge of the Gobi Desert - now in the Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia in China.

They are unlikely companions. Crane seeks freedom, adventure, sensation. Tsung Tsai is determined to find his master's grave and plant the seeds of a spiritual renewal in China. As their search culminates in a torturous climb to a remote mountain cave, it becomes clear that this seemingly quixotic quest may cost both men's lives.

The review below is by Joan Halifax Roshi, for which grateful acknowedgement is given.

"This is one very extraordinary book! First, I must say I do admire its writer, poet George Crane. He draws us into the world of the Buddhist monk Tsung Tsai with consummate skill. In the first page of this dramatic true story, the reader feels the rhythm, flesh, and tones of Tsung Tsai's remote monastery of the 1950's as if we and the author Crane were actually there. And we never lose this feeling of immediacy as the tale unfolds, and the poet-author Crane takes us from Woodstock to Mongolia, from Hong Kong to New York City.

"Who is this monk Tsung Tsai living in Woodstock, New York? His name means Ancestor Wisdom, and we find as this tale unfolds that he is true to his name. We learn that when he was a young monk, Tsung Tsai makes a hair-raising 2000 mile escape out of China from the Red Army that was flooding and destroying China in 1959. This is a China that is swept by famine and chaos. His monastery is destroyed, its monks are killed, China is flattened, and he is a hunted man. He also has been forced to leave his beloved hermit teacher Shiuh Deng in a cave in the far reaches of the mountains.

"Pursued and starved, Tsung Tsai slips through the eye of a small painful needle to freedom. Forty years later, he with Crane return to this remote region on the edge of the Gobi to find the bones of his beloved master and to renew the spirit of Buddhism in China. They return to a still unfriendly China, and a China whose peoples are living with very little. And we cannot but feel the utter desolation of this minimalist world.

"The encounter with Crane in Woodstock, New York, has many poignant and comic aspects. Crane is definitely not a believer. Yet the old monk quietly takes him into this world with his strange and penetrating humor and big mind wisdom. Tsung Tsai,
though, is not just an ordinary monk. He is a shaman and trickster as well. I am sure that some readers will compare the relationship between the monk and Crane to Castenada's relationship to Don Juan. However, this "Don Juan", our new friend Tsung Tsai, happens to be the monk down the street. We meet him through George Crane's heart and mind, and we like him. We also know that we can find him in Woodstock, New York. He is humble, really smart, funny, wise, spare, and old. He is also a shaman, scholar, and poet. In his Woodstock hut, he sleeps on a pile of cardboard boxes and keeps the scene around him to the very basics. And whenever he opens his mouth, we and Mr. Crane are all ears.

"Their friendship unfolds through the translation of poetry. Then one day, Tsung Tsai has the chance to return to China. We know little of this journey except that when he returns to the States, he seems to be deeply disturbed by what he encountered in China. True to our hero Tsung Tsai, he has a completely unlikely vision that brings him and Crane back to China to find the bones of his teacher in order to give them a proper burial. How will they manage this, you ask? They are both dirt poor. This is a highly unpublished poet and an unknown monk. Don't worry; our monk has this all worked out. Go to New York City, auction off the book of the story of their mission, get the advance, go to China, do the deed, then write the book about what happens. And so it goes, and are we fortunate! The adventure proceeds from there.

"I do not want to spoil the tale for you. Just to say, this is one trip I would probably not want to do in the flesh. Crane amazes me in how he hung in there. He now is my hero too. I have been in some pretty remote and rough places in the world, and I could taste the cold, smoke and hunger that Crane and Tsung Tsai bring
to us. The scalding , blowing sand of the Gobi Desert scours us out. The dank rooms they stay in oppress us. The insane walk up the mountain to find Tsung Tsai's Master's bones takes our breath away. We do not know if our heroes will survive. And their relationship takes on a whole new dimension, moving from curiosity to love as this tale culminates.

"George Crane was a foreign correspondent and authored four books of poems in addition to the translations he has done with his monk friend. Tsung Tsai is a meditation teacher, doctor of classical Chinese medicine, martial arts adept, poet, and calligrapher. We hope that he has a long life ahead of him. In the end, I can say that this is a beautifully written book and an extraordinary story that inspires and teaches. I bow in gratitude to these two men whose connection has already benefited many."

So, with thanks to both George Crane - and also Joan Halifax Roshi for the review - I leave Inner Mongolia for another 'Autonomous Region' of China - Xinjiang - courtesy of "The Road to Miran" by German author and traveller Christa Paula.

Christa Paula, an intrepid young student of Asian art and archaeology, set off in 1989 to explore an area closed to Westerners as well as to most Chinese, and one which is firmly under military rule. Tall and blonde, she travelled for the most part incognito, disguised in a Pathan cap, old grey jacket and big padded trousers. Her goal was Miran, the ancient Buddhist site of second-century wall paintings. In the company of Chang, a maverick taxi driver, Christa Paula travelled through an area dotted with nuclear testing sites, forced labour camps and mines in which prisoners dig and process asbestos without protective clothing. She discovered that villages which exist on maps are now radiation-contaminated ghost towns, and she witnessed everywhere the seeds of discontent and political unrest.

So from Xinjiang I opt to fly rather than endure another lengthy train journey. I leave from Hohhot Baita International Airport (the largest airport in Inner Mongolia) taking the 'China Southern Airlines' direct flight CZ6928, leaving at 21.05 and arriving just 3 hours 20 minutes later at 00.25. The flight is a bargain at £219 on eBookers - over £100 cheaper than any other quoted flight (although a train would have been about £34 - but taking over 29 hours!). I arrive on time at Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport - a vast, modern and very busy airport 10 miles northwest of downtown Ürümqi - in the capital of the "Forbidden Zone" of Xinjiang.