Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Fililng in the Middle of the Map VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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