Tuesday, 6 September 2011

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.

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