Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Nothing is more important than peace, and f*** you if you don't agree.

On the turntable: The Cure, "Join the Dots"

Monday, August 28, 2017

Nakasendo Waypoints #102

Under wind-scoured skies, 
Summer masquerades 
As autumn.

On the turntable:  The Clash, "Tokyo, Japan, 1982-02-01"

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Papers: Jonathan Raban

"Travelling always entails infidelity. You do your best to mask the feeling of sly triumph that comes with turning your back on home and all it stands for; but disappearing into the crowd in the departure lounge, or stowing your bags in the car at dawn, you know you're a rat." 

On the turntable: Dead Can Dance, "Toward the Within"

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #24

The Book of Yokai by Micheal Dylan Foster
Kujiranami Junmai Ginjo
On the turntable:  Eric Clapton,  "Slowhand"

Friday, August 25, 2017


Island time
Gradually denuded,
As the hands move ever forward.

On the turntable:  The Cure, "Disintegration"

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Racing the Squalls

You can't step in the same river twice.  Heraclitus' best known quote applies as equally well to Japan as it does to Greece.  When I arrived in Japan in 1994 I wasted little time in traveling across the country as much as I could, assuming, as most of us do, that I'd only be here a year or two.  I saw a good deal that initial year, but having limited Japanese, and only a basic understanding of what I was looking at.  Recently, with over two decades of experience as my guide, I've begun to revisit some of those places.

You can't step in the same river twice.  Nor can you bicycle the same plain.  I must have visited Asuka sometime in 1995, and followed a recommended hike down from Okadera to a bicycle rental place to finish the rest of the sites in the saddle.  I remember little of that trip, but have stronger memories of subsequent visits, mainly road walks detailed on this blog over the last few years, though the highlight would surely be the almost primordial Kodo gig amongst ancient tombs (especially the part where I wandered off during the Odaiko solo and was mesmerized by the shadow of the drummer dancing upon the stones).  The bicycle-friendly maps I'd seen during my walks had tempted me back yet again, and it was time to revisit the sites themselves, to interact and learn from them, rather than simply stroll past.

The heat of August is always unpleasant, making even the act of brushing your teeth a sweaty affair.  But it seems the perfect time to lose the few kilograms I'd put on during two weeks in Alaska.  The weather has other ideas, and the thunderstorm that awakens me successfully keeps the sun at bay.  Yet the forecast looks promising so I jump a train south, wincing out the rain-soaked windows.

I depart Asuka in sunlight.  As a stream of schoolgirls walk heavily down the station steps, I wheel in the opposite direction, east.  Not far off is one of Asuka's highlights, the Takamatsuzuka tomb, a pine tree covered hillock as evinced by the name itself.  The sides have been cleared and turned into a pleasant park, criss-crossed with paths for the cyclist or pedestrian.  I cycle up and around the pines, as beneath me, an imperial lost to history lies surrounded by an array of elaborate wall murals.  The Azure Dragon, Black Tortoise, White Tiger, and Vermilion Bird find parallel to figures found in a similar tomb in Mongolia, depicted as traveling in an entourage of Sogdianian traders of the Central Asian Silk Road. These, as well as the adjacent Asuka Bijin beauties are National Treasures, and defy any attempt to remove them due to the fragility of the stone.  (As such they were on view to the public for a short time earlier this year.)

A bicycle underpass brings me to a small museum whose highlight is a large diorama of the entire plain.  More important on such a hot day is the air conditioning and cold tea.  Out front, vine-laden gourds get a similar cooling due to a misting system, under which I too take a turn.  Behind the museum is a small pond, completely covered with lotus plants, many blooming a brilliant purple, a suitable august color, if using the term in both its connotations.  Two old-timers sit beside the pond, their camera lenses as large as cannons.  I am tempted to ask what they are shooting, but another mist begins to fall from the sky above me.  

Through a small village and into a bamboo grove, I come to the paired stones known as Oni no Manaita (Demon's cutting board) and Oni no Secchin (Demon's toilet).  Japanese legends are rife with oni, and due to the time frame, I presume that they began with encounters with larger, hairier refugees from the Asian mainland, who hid themselves as brigands in the hills, descending to raid villages and carry off food, women, and livestock.  This pair of stones is supposedly where their victims were carved up for dinner, and then subsequently disposed of through defecation.  

All this may have occurred during the time of Tenmu, the 7th Century emperor who had commissioned both the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, the only "religious texts" associated with Shinto.  The gods seemed occupied with myself as well, if in the form of a heavier rain, causing me to find shelter briefly under the roof of a small gate to Tenmu's tomb.  The weather breaks out again a few minutes on, as I marvel at the Kameishi stone carved to look like a turtle.  Beside it is a shelter covered in corregated iron, which offered benches for visitors, as well as a series of shelves displaying local produce bagged and tagged at 100 yen.  It is easy to entrust the honor system, what with all the gods and ancestors about.  

After a brief rest, I pedal away with one wary eye on the western sky.  I follow a pleasant path meant specifically for bicyclists, with leads me through rice fields to Tachibana-dera, the supposed birth place of Shotoku-Taishi, and one of seven temples that he had commissioned.  The late 6th Century imperial regent was an early propagator of Buddhism,which had not long before been introduced from China as a way to civilize the wild tribes of the Japanese archipelago. The temple is named for a type of mandarin orange that comes from a tree transplanted from China, and is also well known for the Janus-like two-faced stone, carved to represent good and evil.  In the adjacent Ōjo-in hall, the visitor is encouraged to recline on the tatami mats and admire the 260 flowers painted on the ceiling.

In its day, the sprawling grounds of Tachibana-dera would have abutted those of the adjacent Kawahara-dera, whose modest form stands amidst an open patch of land, the foundations stones of its ancient incarnation still visible amidst the grass. It is a pleasant surprise in a country known for its shoe-horn approach to development.  I express this very point to the wife of the resident priest, how unusual it is that the temple lands weren't broken up by the pro-Shinto Meiji-ists at the end of the feudal period, or by the occupation forces after the war.  She smiles in a way that shows that she too is pleased.  I had initiated our conversation by asking the meaning of the sign out front claiming that this temple was the first in Japan to do sutra-copying.  This practice began in the 12th century, when the temple was already five centuries old.  Parishioners lay clear paper over a sutra (usually the Heart Sutra), and trace the characters in order to gain merit.  With the recent influx in foreign tourists, the temple has begun to offer the service in English.  The wife asks me if I'd like to try but I beg off, not liking the look of the sky and still having ground to cover.  

It is a gentle rise to Ishibutai tomb, a wide open patch of grass at the center of which is a massive pile of stones, the largest megalithic site in Japan  The grassy tumulus has long disappeared, but perhaps the mountain itself was meant to take on that role. There is little to see inside, so it is better to step back and ponder how anyone could have moved stones of such size (the ceiling stone alone weighs 77 tons), or the reason why, though similar sites can be found the world over.  

Asuka village proper begins here.  Backtracking slightly, I enter a small lane that has maintained the look of the feudal period that came a century after the height of the Asuka civilization, a look that is unspeakably Japanese to the foreign eye.  Simplistic buildings of dark wood stand shoulder to shoulder, most converted to galleries or cafes.  My ears pull the focus from my eyes, captured by a recorded lecture piped from one of them. Inukai Manyo Memorial Hall is dedicated to Professor Inukai Takashi, who walked throughout the country to sites related to the 1400 year old Manyoshu, one of the world's earliest collection of poems.  He felt that visiting the sites would bring a deeper understanding of their meaning, visiting 250 of them over 50 years.  His exertions led to the Manyoshu's current popularity, and he even collected a number of the poems which he illustrated in the form of karuta cards, a game popular at New Year's. His daughter has continued this work of illustration, and I read through a series that she has translated into English.  She joins me as I eat a plate of hayashi rice in the museum's cafe, the enthusiasm about her father's work as colorful as the prints on the walls around us.

Manyoshu has a close association with Asuka, and not far off is a even larger museum dedicated to the work itself.  But with the weather holding, I prefer the poetry in motion of bicycling.  I do make a brief stop at the Sakafuneishi which stands on a hillock above.  This large 5.5 meter stone sits alone in a stretch of bamboo forest, and it is presumed that the mysterious, almost alien-like grooves and channels carved into its face were for some ancient means of oil or alcohol production, though to me it resembled perhaps a primitive operating table (Though I have been recently watching The Knick).  A further section, mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, was discovered in the year 2000, and can be seen below at the foot of the hill.  

From here it is a short ride to Asuka-dera.  A temple has stood on this site since 588, built under the guidance of Korean craftsmen, (who had a hand in much of the culture developed at the time, and whose name resonates in the bizarre pronunciation of the kanji for many villages in the area).  I step inside and begin to learn about the temple's history from a young monk who seems happy to talk with visitors.  We stand before the temple's Great Buddha, the oldest in Japan.  There is a steadfast dignity in the old Buddha's gaze, unwavering since the year 606, but the scarring in the copper strongly reflects the impermanence of form.  This impermanence is further exemplified in a small pagoda that sits out back beside the rice paddies, which commemorates the death of Soga no Iruka.  His execution, and his father's subsequent suicide, marked the demise of the Soga clan, immigrants from the mainland who founded Asuka-dera and were the Asuka era's most important family.  

While the pagoda still stands, most other temples from the period remain only as foundations.  I play connect the dots with the ruins, most impressive being Dainkandai-ji's multi-level stone stele, and the Yamada-dera site, portions of which have been converted into the impressive Asuka Historical Museum today housing many of the old Buddhist art and relics. 

Similarly, Asuka-dera's original structure was disassembled to be rebuilt in Nara as Gango-ji, supporting that temple's claim of being the first in Japan.  Buddhism itself is based on the idea of change, and change to the area came quickly.  Unbeknownst to Shotoku Taishi, the coming of Buddhism was the beginning of the end to the Asuka, as the world he knew evolved into a more refined society due to that belief system's code of morals and ethics, followed by the more political Risturyo Codes a half-century later.   This codification too was a Chinese import, Confucian at heart, and thus began the rush to catch up with the Continent and throw off Japan's subordinate status. The imperial court entrenched itself not far to the north at Nara, and just after the turn of the next century, the move was complete, and the country began to take on a shape familiar to modern eyes.   

On the turntable:  James Galway, "Over the Sea to Skye"
On the nighttable :  Deborah Dawkin, "Knut Hamsun, Dreamer and Dissenter"

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Among the crush of tourists
The pressed palms and bowed head of the old uncle
Reminds me what it's all about. 

(Photo courtesy of Paul Crouse)

On the turntable:  The Bolshoi, "Friends"
On the nighttable:  Ajahn Sucitto, "Rude Awakenings"

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Papers: Colette

"The future is what doesn't happen."

On the turntable:  Duran Duran, "Thank You"

Saturday, August 19, 2017


  Sketches for an Alaska travel piece that probably won't be written. 

...sitting on deck, scanning the water for wildlife.  Anticipation becomes the dominant emotion of the day.  Every whitecap is the flank of an orca, every shadow a humpback ready to launch itself into orbit...

...not surprising for a center of government, the state capital Juneau attracts a fair share of lovably eccentric wierdos like our guide Micheal who sings us the safety features of his bus on his ukelele, or the young Tlingit who plays his drum and sings us down the cable-car.  His enthusiasm is attractive, but not nearly as much as the quiet wisdom of the grandfather elder whose stories accompanied us on the way up...

 ...looking up at the glacial-scarred hills.  I begin to see certain patterns that resemble the totem art of the local natives.  And in such looking I may have some insight into their origin...

...amazing emerald green of their rivers, laden with the minerals of glacial melt off...      
...the impossible blue of the Sitka spruce needles, enhanced perhaps by my colorblind eyes;  Eagle flying past below me to perch in a tree, its white head ever watchful amongst the green branches of the hemlock;  Canadian maples, red all summer long...

..Prince Rupert, where the highway ends. From here the choice is by boat, plane, or (suicidally) foot... discoveries:  Dolly Varden salmon;  the subtle blue-greys of Sitka Spruce;  the awe in watching floatplanes landing and taking off; the landscape that dwarfs everything;  the glacial u-cuts of the valleys, the weight of their ice depressing the earth; the cruise ships overwhelming all: 6000 passengers in a town of 900;  the wonder that is spruce beer...

...staring at the shoreline as it passes, in awe of the mountains as they rise above. The density of vegetation, the wildlife within.  The waters too equally dense, an unfathomable 1500 fathoms below me, in a body of water as narrow as a modest river... 

...stepping on deck to see a whale sound; a mere curvature of slick grey back, like a great serpent sinking beneath the deep...

...Alaska is a place where the many "me's" collided.  That is to say, the various persons I was at different times in my life:  

An unfinished anthropology Masters degree, where the lecture hall resounded with the hard consonants that form the names of Tlingit and Kwakiutl, as well as with the more melodic Salish and Haida

Being offered a job on a fishing boat the summer before Japan, one that turned I down when the captain wouldn't offer return airfare and I was pinching pennies for my move to Asia. (Fair enough, as he only knew me through a couple of friends who had crewed for him previously.) But this month, reading McCloskey's Highliners, is a reminder of the perils of romantic ideals.  Then again, I read it with the apprehensive eyes of middle age, having long ago forgotten the indestructibility of 27;

I suppose the apprehension began nearly two decades ago, upon reading Krakauer's Into the Wild, a book that served as reminder of who I'd once been.   McCandless' spirit was mine, and I just as easily could have shared his early demise...        

On the turntable:  The Doors, "Waiting for the Sun"
On the nighttable:  John McPhee, "Coming into the Country" 

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Beautiful BC
Shrouded in the smoke of
A thousand fires.

On the turntable:  The Clash, "On Broadway"

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Along the outer reaches
Where the salmon commute...

On the turntable:  The Doors, "When You're Strange"

Monday, August 14, 2017


Thanks to Amy Chavez for linking one of the recent Inland Sea posts to her Mooo blog.

On the turntable:  "The Last Waltz (Sdtk)" 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map IX

It was still dark when we arrived in Istanbul, and due to the early hour, we were whisked through immigration and customs before I even had time to think of Midnight Express.  Our hotel proved generous in allowing us an early check-in, so we were crawling into bed just as the muezzin began his morning call.  This hotel, the Four Seasons, was well situated, and advertised itself as being a restored palace.  It was only later that I found out that it also been Sağmalcılar Prison, the very place where Billy Hayes had done time.  I’m sure the rooms are a lot nicer now.

We awoke in time for lunch at a sidewalk café, then wandered over to Hagia Sophia.  Despite being the off-season, the place was bustling, and I wondered at how crowded it must have been before the semi-monthly terrorist strikes that plagued 2016.  The place was undergoing major restoration, and I began to grumble about paying full fare.  The nearby Roman Cistern had come highly recommended, but was infested with vermin – hundreds of school kids shrieking and filling the already cramped space with their incessant selfie posing. 

We retreated back up to the Topkapi Museum, number one on my list due to the great old film with Peter Ustimov.  But here too was crowded with older students, pressing themselves through the narrow doorways into rooms already jam-packed. And here too was the scaffolding, with more than half the rooms off limits, including, and most frustratingly, the displays for the Spoonmaker's Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger, which I had most hoped to see.   I cooled my anger with a coffee on the terrace out back, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  

But it was the massage at the Aya Sofia Hamam, that finally brought calm.  This beautifully restored Turkish bath was a masterpiece in tile, the ceiling above as designed by Spirograph.   The time, the day, the era, all blended together by the work of strong hands.

I found the freedom I had been seeking at dawn the following day.  Using the classic Strolling Through Istanbul as a guidebook, I hopped a taxi out to the far side of Galata Bridge to begin a morning’s stroll.  I crossed the Golden Horn once again, alone but for a handful of fishermen casting lines into the waters below, which twitched in the wake of ferries whose own crossings were proceeded by whistle-blast. 

I skirted the Spice Market and began to climb toward a quiet Sultanamet, having the broad open spaces to myself, my photos unencumbered by the shapes of strangers.  After a simple breakfast in the shadow of Aya Irini, I walked through the Outer Garden of the Saray, popping into color in the early springtime.  A failed attempt to cross back below the Topkapi brought me to a military post, so I reversed myself and continued to wander the district, popping into lesser museums covered by my three-day pass.  A number of them were similarly under renovation, and I cursed the tourist bureau once again.  (Later I heard from others that this seems to be Istanbul’s perpetual state, a ploy perhaps at getting return visitors.) 

This walk set the tone for the next few mornings, and I covered a great deal of the city this way, book in hand.  The quiet of the smaller mosques reminded me of the lesser temples of Southeast Asia, always an oasis of green calm in a chaotic cityscape.  Dogs lazed about, and worshippers nearly blended into the surroundings so quiet was their prayer.  I walked ever westward, toward Europe, climbing each of the seven hills, wandering the massive mosques that defined them, each with quaint neighborhoods of their own.  At some point during these ambulations, I fell in love with the city. 

The Fatih area was perhaps my favorite, so far off the tourist track, so run down the archeological sites, sitting amidst neighborhoods sliced into interesting geometric shapes by haphazard lanes, all running into the ganglia of intersections that seemed villages in their own right.  Schoolkids made their way toward classes, and older residents sat with their newspapers and strong coffee.  A pair of tourists too fuelled up in a café, where the owner reached over to the vendors next door, to break the usual oversized denomination.  Nearby, a rubbish collector slept inside his empty mobile rubbish bin. The open marble grounds of the Fatih Mosque were bright and beautiful on a sunny day.  Fountains splashed invitingly in front of a set of escalators leading downhill.  A somewhat sketchy guy dozed over his cigarette, but I worry he was going to steal my shoes.   Down a street adjoining the mosque I began to notice a different brand of Islam had taken root, with bushy beards and women in fuller burqas.  I watched one woman vacuum the street and wonder perhaps unkindly if she ever caught the drag of her hem in the suction.

In the afternoons I’d do similar walks with LYL and her friend Naile, who’d flown over from Ankara to join us.  The days stayed cool and encouraged longer distances, always punctuated by coffee and Turkish delight.  Meals were exquisite, on par with Italy in my opinion, taken at outdoor cafes where we’d admire the dogs, chat with fellow diners, and try to think about anything but terrorists.  (I was affected by them anyway, in the form of Trump’s travel ban.  Unknown to me, electronics had been banned from US flights originating in certain countries, Turkey among them.  The UK had followed suit, and thus I was deprived of reading material for my London flight.  I got of easy off course, compared to too many others, but was annoyed nevertheless.)  

And how not to love this city? With its Bosporus views from Suleymaniye Mosque; the bustling stroll down the trendy Istikal Caddesi; zigzagging through the former Silk Road caravanserai that dot the hill between the Grand and Spice Bazaars; the medieval charm of Galata?  Even the polished patter of the carpet sellers was amusing, offering a brief moment of laughter as you drifted past.  If any of their wares had been of the flying variety, I’d have bought one immediately, if only to return, homing pigeon-like back to the city of its birth. 

On the turntable:  David Byrne, "Rei Momo"

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map VIII

The best description of Ashgabad can be found in Lonely Planet, which I’ll paraphrase as being Las Vegas as if designed by the North Koreans.  Each and every building looked like a casino, most of all the ministries that were of an impossible scale.  The roads that lined them were near empty, home only to angled street lamps that looked like the psychedelic bats that nest in ralph Steadman’s imagination.  We weren’t allowed off the bus, but I kept my camera clicking like a machine gun the entire way.  It truly was a bizarre experience, touring a city that we weren’t exactly welcome in.  As we drove around the word that kept rolling around and around in my brain like a Lotto ball was “ostentatious.”     

Besides lunch in a building completely devoid of signs, the only stop we made was a museum.  It was Wednesday, the usual day off, but the opened up just for us, which no doubt made an already dour looking staff even more unhappy.  The whole placed reeked of kerosene, in an abrupt attempt at fending off the gloomy day outside.  The staff seemed to do little but keep our groups in the sections we were designated to see.  One of them led us around, explaining things in a very bizarre English, filled with mispronunciations that hinted at a passive language development with only books as a resource.  He went into remarkable detail about absolutely everything, which hinted at a long morning ahead. LYL and I broke away to explore on our own, under the pretext of needing the bathroom.  (While the museum itself was a beautiful specimen, the toilets were like an archeological site, with sandpaper toilet paper.)  All the non-historical (read: non-tourist friendly) rooms were monuments to the glory of the empire, and got more and more bizarre as we went along.  The minders we passed didn't seem too happy with our being there, but simply kept their heads down and fiddled with their phones.  As is always the case with these kinds of museums, the payoff comes with the most recent exhibits where the central motif is the handsome, well-coifed leader, photo-shopped into action hero poses before an array of backgrounds.   

We got some reprieve from all of this by driving out to the Nissa, the Parthian capita until the 3rd Century CE.  The land here was lush, the white marble falling away to be replaced by juniper and pine.  Hundreds of thousands had been planted, thickening the closer they came to the carved out hillsides beyond, yet of a smaller height. The easy comparison for me was with New Mexico, right down to the blocky adobe structures baking in the sun, beside the more curved walls of kiva.  

Nissa itself could have been an uninhabited Taos Pueblo, shadowed by monstrous peaks that shot rapidly toward the sky.  On their far side was Iran, a lone road curved and dipped dangerously up to the pass leading up and over.  Somewhere as I walked along my iPhone sent me a text telling me that I’d actually entered that country.  It was a tantalizing thought, but I was happy enough here, walking through the narrow passages that would open now and again into keyhole-shaped doorways that revealed the green oasis that surrounded us. 

Tukemenbashi had ordered some of Ashgabat’s biggest and most garish structures to be built outside the city, including our own rocket-ship shaped hotel.  Nearby was the world’s largest (and perhaps least-used) indoor ferris wheel that looked like a massive lozenge.  Another was an enormous TV tower that brought in very little, but did extend a middle finger toward neighboring Iran. 

Largest of all was the mausoleum to the great leader himself.  It was a beauty indeed, probably the most impressive in town, and certainly the most colorful building in Central Asia, with towering minarets and that ubiquitous 8-pointed star that could be seen everywhere and never failed to remind me of a sheriff’s badge.  How fitting then that we arrived just in time for the changing of the guard.  Their self-conscious showboating was like a Monty Python skit, especially when the highest-ranking officer twirled his rifle high in the air and nearly got a bayonet in the forehead.  Fear of detainment is all that kept us from bursting into laughter. 

The sun eventually fell, and the marble neon was once again lit by a million colored bulbs.  An oil-rich nation, Turkemenistan lacked nothing for natural energy.  But it was the absence of life here created a bigger impression.   How ironic the parallel that an alignment of marble such as this is more often found in cemeteries. 

Our dinner that night was equally dead, energy-wise.  What is the point of throwing a farewell dinner for people who already wished they were gone?  There was music, there was dancing, but the life had gone out of the group and dinner seemed more something to get through than to enjoy.  Like everywhere else in country, the service was inefficient, the people cold. (I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking populace, who only broke their scowling countenances when shouting at you if you tried to raise a camera, even if it wasn’t pointed at them.)  The highlights of the trip were already behind us, leaving Turkmenistan as an amusing afterthought to the glories of Uzbekistan, the beauties of Kazahkstan.  (And if I were to condense the entire journey to a single line, it is this: Kazahkstan has the landscape; Uzbekistan has the monuments; Turkmenistan has the oddball politics.)   But I couldn't imagine starting here. 

After a few hours sleep back at our space capsule, we went to catch our late night flight to Istanbul.  The airport was brand new, just in time for the Asian Games later in 2017, and it was a beauty, but it wasn’t long before the flaws began to reveal themselves.  Security checkpoints began just inside the sliding glass doors, which ensured that queues spilled out onto the sidewalks and roads.  The check-in process was a long and complicated one, the blind leading the blind.  Before reaching the gates, our bags were checked twice, our documents three times.  You never quite knew when you were through, and could sit and caffeinate toward the 4 am departure.   And it was with great relief to lift off, the bright lights of the city receding behind our wings.  I’d never been so happy to leave a country, and am certain I’ll never return.  That said I’d recommend a visit very highly, as you will never find a more bizarre place on earth.  Though I’m not sure that this qualifies as a compliment.  For which I feel slightly guilty.   As I left the Turkmenistan Consulate in Tokyo a few months before, visa in hand, the last thing the Consul said to me was “Write something good about my country.” 

I’m very sorry sir, but I’m not sure that I can. 

On the turntable:  Dead Kennedys, "Live at the Deaf Club"

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Imbibing Bibliophile #23

Alaska Days with John Muir by Samuel Hall Young
Wheelhouse Brewing Company, Flagship Pale Ale 

On the turntable:  Eric Clapton, "Reptile" 

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"

Monday, August 07, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map VI

That night we crossed the Oxus, dim in the fading light, which helped to preserve the great river’s mystery, which had held spellbound dozens of writers and explorers. But in this parched part of the world, water is far more important than lore, and the river’s output was abundant to support a number of empires, most notably those of Alexander, and Genghis Khan (though centuries apart).  In modern times, overirrigation had greatly diminished its flow, dramatic proof being the Aral Sea, now one-tenth its previous size.    

The morning dawned to skies as magnificent and blue as the day before.  It was still early when we arrived in Bukhara, beginning the day with a visit to the Kalon Mosque and its adjacent minaret, now off limits, but the scene of a handful of legends involving the ingenuity of the few who survived being thrown from its 47-meter height. The courtyard of the mosque was simply immense, and could handle ten thousand visitors, but we had it to ourselves this day.  Between the sky and its dome and the tilework, it was like a multihued demonstration of the color blue.   

The next two days I spent wandering, exploring all the hidden corners and back roads.  A carpet seller explained heft and weave, all in a flawless London accent. Sellers huddled in the crumbling Abdul Aziz Khan Madressa, their business pitch much more solid than the edifice around them; Char Minar stood alone in a sunken courtyard, quiet and atmospheric and somehow reminiscent of a space shuttle.  Historically there had been snakes here, but I found that difficult to believe, considering it was now hemmed in by houses; I stroll through the labyrinth of covered bazaars, the sellers friendly, unaggressive.  I returned late to buy a drum the following day, but seemed to have chosen the only salesperson in town who took Sundays off;  (I’d eventually but one in a caravanserai, from a musician whose 10 years old son out tapped a few licks before handing it over.)  I also bought a hand puppet for my daughter, its creator considered a national treasure.  Nearby, a European couple sat on the sunken steps before the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, dazzled by its 1100 year beauty.      


A walk at dawn took me down the alleyways, away from the polish of  the UNESCO funded main sites.  I popped into a few madrasa and found that I had them to myself; making it far easier to find contemplation at a time before the symbiotic dance of tourist and merchant got underway.  My feet led me to the infamous Bug Pit, where a pair of poor, cocky Englishmen found ample time for contemplation, and hopefully reflected on their arrogance, which ultimately got them killed.  I sat out front after my visit, looking over at the hulking Ark across the sands, most of the once proud structure reverting back to desert.  In her spreading shadow, three boys played with a Spiderman doll.

I cut back through the carpet marker, locals mainly, as the sellers had no real interest in me.  I settled eventually with a coffee by the pond Lyabi Hauz. I attempted to get involved with my book about Ibn Battutah, but was often pulled away by people who wanted to take a photo with me.  The most persistent were a group of girls, in high school probably, who had dressed up for a Sunday on the town.  (I’d run into them twice more before the day was over.) 

The final evening , our group watched a concert in the Namozgohk Mosque, where on a massive carpet had been laid across the courtyard, and a series of local dances were performed.  It was difficult to assess which was more beautiful, the movements or the costumes.  Between dances, four models drifted through wearing a stunning array of clothing that ran across the centuries.  Swallows flitted above, alight on the bounce of the notes emitting from the percussion and strings.  It was a magical evening, culminating in a dinner in the sprawling home of an apparently successful merchant, who joined in on stirring a massive pot of plov bubbling away in a fire pit at the center of a courtyard.  The Uzbeks had proven to be wonderful hosts, as open and inviting as their spacious architecture.  But sadly we’d be crossing the border that night. 

On the turntable:  Dave Douglas, "The Infinite" 

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map V

We were somewhere outside Samarkand when the desert began to take hold.  The infinite grasslands had disappeared, replaced by wasteland devoid of all life but for the scrub of small plants.  Where the odd village did appear, the old concrete buildings of the north had been replaced by less solid dwellings of baked brick.  Children ran along the dusty lanes between them.  The livestock too had mainly been replaced by high electrical lines, and when finally some sheep did appear, judging from the distance between shrubs, I imagine they’d be hard pressed to find food.  Yet despite the dry, parched look to things, there was far more water to be seen, in the form of broad rivers, narrow irrigation channels, and oasis-like collective pools. Most of the latter were surrounded by dense, multi-colored clusters of vegetation.  This abundance of water may help explain the profuse flowers sprouting acre after acre from the arid earth.   But between these, salt stains bleached the landscape like some weirdly abnormal pigmentation.  Coming from nowhere and heading toward the same, two men bounced across this desert on a motorcycle. 

 So it was some surprise to come to the train station in Urgench , just outside Khiva.   This tidy looking town was filled with squat, boxy buildings, and an elaborate canal system that demarcated the perimeters of the multitudinous rice fields here.   A tractor was busy tilling one field, pulling a plow atop which two men were squatting in order to force the blades deeper into the dry soil.  Not far off in another field, an old couple clad in traditional dress labored heavily with their hoes, under the watch of some fresh new homes.  A fleet of green Scoda trolleybuses, the last such buses in Uzbekistan, provided service for the few residents here.  Yet most of the homes looked unfinished, despite the odd car here and there. 

With all this cultivation, it was easy to see Khiva as an oasis, and the compact nature of the walled, fortress-like town confirmed it.  I found it the most splendid place so far, the absence of cars within adding to the ambience.  There were very few temporal markers within, making it easy to forget the century.  The only touristic elements were the sellers of hats made from various furs, but they stayed close to the main gate and once through this initial gauntlet, the place was mine.  Narrow lanes led between the usual mosques and madrases, but they too took on the uniform look here of plain brown, baked soil walls.  The most impressive building was the Kuhna Ark, and climbing up and around its multi-level, angular dimensions was a return to the games of childhood.  This spirit remained with me as I climbed on all fours up the steep, spiraling internal stairwell of the Juma Minaret, the only light coming from a few small windows, and the screen of my iPhone.  The views from the top were of a film set, Tatooine to my mind.  I could imagine the traders here in days past, elbowing their way through the masses, adorned in a fashion show with origins all across Asia.  It was the birth of the global economy.


These ancient roots can still be glimpsed in the bazaar just outside the East Gate, where sellers sit on blankets in the shade, under the gaze of camels bellowing obstinately in the corners. A box of onions has been left in the streaming sunlight, each orb gleaming like the top of a minaret.  I found myself caught up in the sprit of the place, coming away with a fur hat befitting a Mongol horseman, as well as with a tube of toothpaste. 

Under picture perfect blue skies, I wandered the lanes again and again, before winding the day up with a cup of tea in one of the squares, taking a hint from Katya, the town’s famous camel, who lazed about in the shade nearby. 

On the turntable:  Duke Ellington, "Ellington at Newport"

Friday, August 04, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map IV

Samarkand.  Now we were getting into the classic Silk Road, the names reverberating with legend.  Sadly the weather was still not in our favor, the skies dark with the threat of rain.  I am sure I shared with my fellow travelers the desire to see these old cities and their monuments beneath the flawless blue skies of the travel posters.    

Our first stop was Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum, Timur’s burial place.  This is one of the most visited sites in Central Asia, probably so that people can guarantee the old murderer is still dead.  The dark skies begat strong icy winds that seemed fitting somehow, until the novelty wore off.  There were a few dozen other visitors braving the cold, a good number of them (male and female alike) asking to pose for photographs with me.  This had happened quite few times over the past few days, and strangely it was only myself and one other fellow who were asked, every time.  The attention was quite fun, today made more ridiculous by the felt hats (his with the sad droopy ears of a basset hound) that he and I had bought as protection from the chill.  Yet we were just a sideshow to the magnificent structure rising behind us, the tiles and domes a bright blue that wasn't diminished in the least by the grey above.


A shade of blue equal in brilliance could be found a short drive away at Ulugbek’s observatory, it a spiraling mural behind a proud statue of the man.  This grandson of Timur proved a better astronomer than ruler, and was particularly shortsighted in not foreseeing his eventual murder by his son (who in turn was killed by a group of amirs, limiting the Timurid dynasty to a mere century.)  Despite Ulugbek’s constant reaching for the heavens, the madrassa he founded here was more earthbound, lacking the towering domes and minarets common to the style, and of a hue more akin to the swirling sands.  The real masterpiece was just in front, a large tube-like structure that crawled up this man-made hill like the noborigama kilns of Japan.  Entering the tube was like climbing into a massive sextant, the parallel grooves burrowing three stories downward. 

Old Samarkand itself too is subterranean, as the Mongol invasions of the 13th century obliterated it completely. (It was Timur, surprisingly, who rebuilt the city just to the west, serving somewhat like Shiva in bringing creation out of destruction.) The Afrosiab kept a 7th century fresco that depicted a Sogdian king receiving dignitaries from as far off as China.  Yet the deserted hillocks and dusty plain outside betrayed little of the great city that had dazzled Alexander 1700 years before. 

After lunch, our group went on to a carpet factory, but LYL and I decided to go to our hotel and rest, the street in front so pockmarked it was like multiple speedbumps.  Though the rambling traveler in me hates to admit it, it was pleasant to catch up on the world after three days without wifi.  Dinner beckoned eventually, a perfunctory meal served in a somewhat sterile, oversized banquet room.  But the highlight of the evening was a good night’s sleep, in a room that refused to move. 

The sky this day too was bleached out, the surface of The Registan, not to mention my spirit damp with rain.  Nonetheless it was a majestic sight, these three madrasas staring each other down a square that had once served as marketplace and execution ground.  The age of each of these structures was betrayed by their inability to stand up straight, none more so than the minarets, and a shoddy Soviet reconstruction job did little to prevent them from leaned in odd directions as if blowing in the wind.  But despite the imperfections, their beauty was mesmerizing, little doubt since Timur had deliberately brought here any artisans that he had captured during his wide raids. Even the poor weather couldn't hide the intricate detailed of their facades, of lions and blue onion domes.  The inner courtyards were all flanked by doorways that led to shops now occupying the former student cells.  In one, a musician demonstrated his merchandise, playing each and every instrument with perfection.  Here again I found my own personal Silk Road, one defined by music, the sounds overlapping across cultures.  

Most impressive to me was the Tilla Kari Madrasa, the most weathered of all, but whose solid gold interior froze me for a good ten minutes.  Each and every madrasa or mosque I had visited so far had not failed to stun me, their colors hypnotic, with the intricacy of their spirals, the honeycomb geometry of their stalactites, the flawless slope to the ceilings.  It made it worth it I suppose to sit through all those seemingly useless algebra classes back in school, to be able to stand beneath these domes and marvel at their perfection.           

We followed a long promenade toward the central market.  Sunday strollers smiled and meandered with little regard to destination.  I paralleled one old man, beard stretching toward his chest, his posture and spectacles marking him as a scholar.  I wondered his view of life, the political and social changes that had determined his life trajectory.  Yet he pottered on.

Likewise, what changes had been seen beneath the domes of the Bibi Khanym Mausoleum, itself curling with gravity toward the earth?  The interior was a ruin and off-limits, bricks strewn about where they fell.  Despite this, sellers peddled their wares in some of the less dusty corners, perhaps a spillover from the larger, bustling market next door.  I gave this a skip, having earlier spied a shop advertising coffee.  After a week of instant coffee on the train, the strong ground of Arabian coffee nearly took off the back of my head.   

This all focused my attention on the ride to come, along the streets of new Samarkand.  There were many signs here for avocat, the legal profession apparently quite lucrative.  There was one store called Papa Jobs, which appeared to repair Apple computers.  On one corner, a man gave a handful of money to a babushka.  A towering mansion looked constructed as if by a child, its owner constantly building and adding to it in a childlike lack of self-control.  And as the road took us more and more into suburb, there was a marked increase in fish sellers  

We arrived at a quiet estate on the outskirts of town, the compound a handful of buildings made of earth and barely hewn tree limbs.  A waterwheel jutted from one wall, its spindly arms pounding sticks of mulberry into pulp to be used as paper.  It all had a delightfully quiet dignity, a place of repose after a week in near motion. 

This motion propelled us again back to the old city, for a visit to Shah-i-Zinda, the part of Samarkand that I had most wanted to see.  This place too was reminiscent of a noborigama kiln, each tomb the size of a small mosque, climbing side by side up the slope toward the ancient city.   A trio of old women clad in black set the tone for the visit, sitting upon a bench at the base of the hill, opening their palms toward the sky, toward the old teachers, toward God.  Yet further up was spoiled somehow, mainly by the number of tourists clustering in the narrow confines.  I hadn't really been bothered by tourists on this trip, as the scale of things thus far (as true for the work of Christianity as for Islam) had been large and momentous, the body given space by the open courtyards, the eyes pulled heavenward by the pitch of arch and dome.   

Nowhere else was this as true as during a return visit to The Registan, this time at night.  The madrassas simply hung in the air against the dark, their surfaces miraculously devoid of any color but for a brilliant white, minarets holding up the featureless black sky.  It was if encountering the gates of heaven itself.   

On the turntable:  Dean & Britta, "13 Most Beautiful"