Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map

The faces I saw entering the plane were anything but Korean.  They had more a Caucasial flair, subtle changes in light and shadow took the viewer from one side of the Urals to the other.  Both the men and the women had hints of the usual beauty of the Eurasian, but the features were arranged in a way I’d never seen before.  It reminded me of a similar encounter I’d had years asgo in Miyako airport as I watched deplane a group of islanders to the south.  It was an encounter with a new race, and my eyes couldn't help but trace those new contours. 

Little surprise this, for the Kazakh people had always been the closest to Russia of all the Central Asian republics, and over the weeks to come I was to find that they were closest to their northern neighbors not only in looks but in character.     Before sitting my seatmate asked me which of the bags in the overhead bin was mine, then removed the suitcase beside it, dumping it into the aisle before replacing it with a multitude of shopping bags.

In those bags I suppose lay the appeal of Seoul to the Kazakhs, as that city had daily direct connections to the capital, Almaty.  Beijing only had four, and Tokyo none at all.  It helped add to the appeal of the city’s mystique, and why it was our transit point for our journey down the Silk Road, despite it never truly being a historical part of the old road.   (I’d discover later that Koreans conscripted as slave labor by the Japanese during the war had been liberated in the Sakhalins by Stalin, who sent them to Almaty expecting them to die.  Their community instead flourished.)

The Silk Road, singular, is a bit of a misnomer as it was actually a series of trade routes, which spider-webbed outward across Asia.  The best-known curves northwest out of Xi’an, and it was this route that was traced by our plane, above wide dusty expanses of empty space.  Every half and hour or so we’d fly over a cluster of roads and structures, and quick glimpses at my GPS revealed names of old desert oases that had hidden Buddhist treasures since antiquity.  The last of these Urumqi was shaded by the heavenly Tien Shan, which from 10,000 meters was a network of steep crags, horribly scarred by the ravage of glaciers.  It looked a foreboding landscape, and it was little wonder the Taoists believed it to be inhabited by gods. 

Onboard I had plenty of entertainment as well.  An oxygen mark had been given to one woman a few rows up, her face pale and covered in sweat.  She didn't look to be in any danger, but she was in obvious discomfort.  Across the aisle, I noticed another woman in tight sportswear who moved with a certain feline-like grace.  He lithe figure was betrayed by the multiple cans of beer I saw her upend into her mouth.  (Tallboys I might add.) As the plane made its gradual descent, the beers took their expected effect, and she began to sway and dance in the aisle to whatever was playing through her headphones.  

These proved a distraction later while in the immigration queue.  She became entangled while being questioned by the officer, and the spiraling movements she made as she tried to remove them was an encore of the dance she’d done high above.  I’m not sure what it was she was being asked, but the belligerent tone she gradually undertook resulted in her being led into a room by a gentleman in a very smart military uniform.  Kazakhstan suffers from the highest rate of alcoholism in Central Asia, though I doubted she was about to get the AA treatment. 

The country recently did away with visa requirements to most countries, so LYL and I were processed pretty quickly.  Due to the long queues, our bags were no doubt dizzy with the multiple revolutions they’d done as they waited for us to retrieve them.  They were quickly chucked into the back of a waiting Landcruiser that cut though the mist toward the city proper.

Americans of a certain generation grew up under the spectre of the Soviet Union, and despite Kazahkstan no longer being part of that confederation, the bleak landscape reminded me of nothing but (as had a previous winter visit to its satellite state of Poland, whose skies never cleared over a week’s time).  Such it was that our hotel felt even more like an oasis, its drab grey exterior hiding a kaleidoscope of color within.  The scale too was immense, startling after the claustrophobic confines of Japan.   Pillars rose like redwoods, and our room was nearly the size of the cabin of the plane.  There was a swimming pool somewhere on the premises, which I imagined to be Olympic-sized.  But we never found out for the fatigue of travel quickly overtook us and we drifted off in this cavernous expanse.

We met our group in the morning.  Though we’d booked in Singapore, it was actually a German tour, which provided comfort in presumed precision.  As one employed in the tour industry, I found their approach brilliant, in breaking up our large party of 60 into smaller groups of 12.  Maximizing profit without sacrificing the intimacy of a smaller tour.  We, the red group (no pun), were led to a waiting coach where we met our guide, a local Kazakh woman in a purple tutu and heeled shoes whose loft mocked that of the mountains behind.  We were whisked around the usual monuments to Soviet grandeur, figures in heroic poses held steadfast in the solidity of marble and stone.  The most audacious was the Golden Man, whose glittering glory towered high above the broad and ceremonial Independence Square. 

We’d see a more accurate replica of the Golden Man not longer after, in a display case at the Central State Museum.  There has been some dispute over the gender of the person who had worn this 5th Century, costume, as the skeleton within was too badly decomposed to determine accurately.  Yet it was the costume itself that dazzled, made up of 4000 separate gold pieces.  The superhero quality to the whole thing seemed fitting, in a city whose former name of Ala-amaty conjured up images of the mythically remote, where the Tien Shan rose dramatically from the seemingly endless Steppe.  And the leaders in this part of the world continued with the myth making.  The current leader had been in power since the dawn of independence from the Soviet Union, 26 years and counting, and monuments to his rule could be found in a room filled with awards and accolades from across the globe.  You could almost believe that he actually had received  98% of the votes in the last election. (Though to his credit, his recent reforms have proven much more democratic.)

The day was clearing bright and blue as we were driven around the city streets, where I was pleased to see some late sakura that I’d expected to miss in Japan this spring.  This delight turned to glee at the sight of a sign for Nomad Insurance, but the highlight was the faux Apple Store, here in the city mere miles away from the hills from which sprouted the genetic ancestor to every apple tree in the world.   

Our eventual stop was Panfilov Parkat whose centerpiece was the magnificent Zenkov Cathedral whose angles and spires had the beauty of the most perfect wedding cake.  Indoors all was dark and peaceful, as candles lit up the framed faces of Jesus and Russian saints, beneath which babushkas quietly swept the inner sanctum.  (This peace was similarly echoed at Central Mosque later on.  Kazakhstan was founded as a secular state, yet unlike during the Soviet years, open worship was encouraged.)  The nearby Folk Museum was an equally marvelous structure, yet one in more subdued hues.  A funny reverse parallel then, as what was celebrated within was a music bright and upbeat, guaranteed to get the fingers tapping rather than entwined in prayer. 

We’d hear this music firsthand at our next stop, Kok-Tobe.  A cable car had taken us there, moving slowly over a neighborhood more weathered than the more orderly Soviet boulevards of the city center.  Our restaurant was shaped like a massive yurt, capable of seating a hundred or more.  Two young musicians sung and strummed, as behind them ran a video presentation of some of the country’s beauty spots.  As we waited for our inevitable first meal of horsemeat, I slipped outside in order to find the rumored statues of the Beatles (continuing the Apple motif).  There they were the Fab Four, framing a bench upon which tourists sat and posed.  I looked past the goofy grinning faces cast in bronze to the nearby peaks, towering and jagged and snow capped in early spring.  It wouldn't be long now before we left them behind. 

Our train was powering up at the Almaty’s Central Station, our guards waiting on the platform for us.  (These men and women would prove to serve a far more important function in fetching us tea and coffee at all hours over the next ten days.)  Our cabin was homey and comfortable for the two of us, despite the confined space.  But it was easy to forget this latter aspect in losing yourself in the endless breadth of the landscape.  The Tien Shan, who had dazzled us with her multi-textural hues of blue, white and grey, began to recede, and what followed dazzled in the opposite manner with its absence of notable features.  Gazing at the emptiness of the Steppe, is much like looking at the sea; it has a meditative quality, where the mind, tiring eventually of grasping for details, begins to slow and settle into quiet, allowing deeper thoughts to arise.   It was the landscape of dreamers. 

Yet this supposed absence was deceiving.  Herds of livestock appeared now and again, in massive numbers spread across the earth like waypoints.   Cattle, sheep, and goats lowered their heads to graze.  Horses held theirs high as they raced along.  Two-humped Bactrian camels bobbed theirs in time to our rattling train, their humps the highest things in sight.  There were sometimes men with these herds, walking along with a stick in their hand, occupying their minds with who knows what.  This was the rate at which time had passed for centuries, moving no faster than the movement of a single foot.  Yet my own train, and its precise schedules, was the physical manifestation of industrialized time, quite arbitrary really as it moved toward the greatest pacesetter of all falling in the west. 

On the turntable:  Devo, "Devo Live"
On the nighttable:  Jung Chang, "Empress Dowager Cixi"

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