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 (zyztouratyahoo.cn.com) 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.