London: Helneman, 1994, 374pp
Colin Thubron comes to us with well-established credentials
as a describer of the lesser-known parts of the world for the average reader
and traveller. In Among the Russians he told of his journeys through Western
Russia by car toward the end of the Brezhnev era; Behind the Wall took
him to some of the remoter regions of China. The Lost Heari of Asia, then;
comes as a logical extension of these travels, covering the territory,
largely uncharted by Western travel writers, between the arenas of his
two previous books.
In twelve chapters, Thubron wends his way eastward from Turkmenistan through the other former Soviet Central Asian republics as far as the border of Kyrgyzstan with China. He is visiting five republics with much cultural heritage in common - all Islamic, except one
(Tajikistan) Turkic-speaking, but all of which are, with varying degrees of reluctance in the upper echelons and enthusiasm in the lower, trying to shake off the shackles of Soviet conformity and establish new and separate identities.
Thubron brings special qualities to the task of describing these uncertainties and contradictions. There is a danger among travel writers of concentrating too much on either Culture or Nature, but Thubron is even- handed and open-minded in his approach. While he writes tellingly and memorably of landscapes, he also has a gift for homing in on the central concerns of the people he meets. The chance encounters he recounts usually lead to discussions of national identity - and even when his interlocutors have a narrow, more self-
centred range of concerns, Thubron reveals as much in what is left unsaid as in what they say. Everywhere he goes he finds that local knowledge of England and the English - and of the western world generally - is as vague and hazy as the majority of Englishmen's view of their nations would be.
Thubron himself is not overly tempted to generalize or fall back on preconceptions of the Central Asian countries' 'national character', but he is sympathetic and forgiving toward those who confide even the most far- fetched visions to him. Time and again he makes remarks such as 'I wanted to believe in this unity'. For he is enough aware of the tides of contemporary history to know that catch-all solutions such as unbridled free- market capitalism, Pan-Turkic brotherhood, Islamic fundamentalism, a return to the command economy and other generalized panaceas are merely an expression of desperate yearnings for economic stability, national identity and ideological certainty. The crumbling and vacant edifice of Soviet communism is still very much more in evidence in Central Asia than in other parts of the former Soviet empire, and the battle is on to fill the void with satisfying new ideologies. it is in getting to the heart of these competing doctrines that Thubron seeks to find that 'lost heart of Asia'.
What follows below is a passage, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from Chapter 1, 'Turkmenistan'.
extract from 'The Lost Heart ofAsia; London: Heinemann 1994
Korvus was an old man now. Beneath a burst of white hair
his face shone heavy and crumpled, and his eyes watered behind their spectacles.
Thirty years ago he had been Turkmenia's Minister of Culture, and a celebrated
poet; and he was a war hero in his country. Authority still tinged his
stout figure as he greeted me. He wore an expensive Finnish suit and a
gold ring set with a carnelian. Yet a Turcoman earthiness undermined this
prestige a little, and a loitering humour.
He seemed to live in schizophrenia. His public life had been spent in Soviet government, but his house nested in a Turcoman suburb sewn with family courtyards, vine-shadowed, where the hot water ran in fat pipes on struts above the lanes, and people shed their shoes
before entering the homes, in the Islamic way.
He ushered me indoors. He looked gentle, preoccupied. He lived with the family of his eldest son the hallway was scattered with toys and shoes - and as I entered the sitting-room I stopped in astonishment. I had stepped into an engulfing jungle of Turcoman artefacts. it was as if I had dropped through the tloor ot the bland Soviet world into an ancient substratum of his people's consciousness. Phylacteries in beaten silver set with semi-precious stones, horsewhips and quivers and camel-bells, the tasselled door-frame of a yurt tent still darkly brilliant in vegetable dyes - they covered the walls with a barbarian intricacy.
"My son and his wife collect them", the old man said. He looked vaguely unhappy.
He sat beside me on a divan. I could not tell what he was thinking. His whole life had been directed towards a Soviet future, in which national differences would disappear. Yet for years, piece by piece, his son had been harvesting his people's past and pouring it over the
walls and furniture in a lavish, speechless celebration. It hung before the old man now like an indictment. It was the history he had abandoned. But after a while he said sombrely: "I think it is right that this has happened, and that we have our freedom. It is right that the old Union is split up." He spoke as if he had fought against each sentence before it had conquered him. He did not look at me. "Although the war seemed to unite us.
The war: he had returned from it with a chestful of medals = "like Brezhnev," he laughed. he had survived the ferocious tank-battle of Kursk, and fought through the terrible winter of 1942-3, when the thrust of the whole war changed and the world was lost to Hitler. His face ignited as he spoke of it. He relaxed into its simplicity. Things had been easier then. Somewhere in the fields of south Ukraine, he said, he had attacked a German tank single-handed and been hit by shell splinters. "I regained consciousness in the snow, covered in
blood." Humorously he patted his chest and back, wriggling his short arms around his body. "I didn't know if I was alive. How were my legs? They were still there. My head? That was on. But my back and side were ripped, and my hand a mass of ligaments. So I packed snow round my wounds, and the German fire missed me and I crawled away. Later one of our officers - a hooligan type with a motorcycle - charged up and filled me with vodka and drove me off. I was operated on in a field hospital under gas, and woke like this." He held up his hand. I saw that two fingers were gone, their stubs welded in a wrinkled trunk. He grinned at it.
In the bleak, triumphant years after the war, he had gone to Moscow to study. Perhaps he had believed in the Soviet unity then. He had married a Russian orphan, and returned to Ashkhabad a hero. He chuckled and drew his maimed hand across his chest to conjure ranks of medals. Later he had written poems about the war, and love lyrics. He had become head of the Turkmenia Writer's Union, then its Minister of Culture in the sixties.
But how much had be invested in his authority, I wondered? Had he believed in Marxism-Leninism or in literature or, arcanely, in both? It was hard to ask. he looked so old now, and somehow depleted, yet comfortable. He had taken off his jacket and put on a lumpy cardigan. His damaged hand rested on his knees. But his wife lived in Moscow - she did not care for Ashkhabad, he said - and he came and went between them, not exactly separated. His life seemed now to have resolved into these divided loyalties. They were perhaps his truth.
I wondered how easily this family cohabited: the failing war-hero and his film-director son Bairam - who was working on a study of Red Army atrocities - and a garrulous, ten-year-old grandson. A depthless chasm of experience seemed to gape between them all.
Bairam came in later, pale and ebullient, without the look of closed unsureness which I often saw about me in the streets. He grew excited by my interest in Turcoman things, and presented his collection piece by piece, unrolling hundred-year-old kelims at my feet in a patter of discriminatory pride. These were not the soulless products, dull with aniline dyes, which two hundred underpaid girls (he told me) turned out in the local Soviet-built factory. They were works of love and patience, whose skills had been inherited from mother to
daughter. He brought in jewellery too: necklaces which had flooded the breast with lapis lazuli and silver bells; enamelled and filigreed frontlets that clipped onto the woman's ears before cascading about her in a miasma of chains. They trickled like water through my fingers.
Meanwhile the old man switched on the television which stood among the nomad regalia, and drank brandy mixed with Pepsi Cola. "I used to drink too much," he said to no-one in particular. "But I hardly drink now. On his chosen channel the Ashkhabad Orchestra, dressed in white tie and tails, was playing Moussorgsky.
Bairam was full of projects. He was working on a film which would have been unthinkable two years before, he said. It was a documentary on his people's flight from the Red Army during the forced collectivisation in the 1920's, when a million Turcomans and
others had fled into Iran and Afghanistan.
He spoke like his father, in sudden bursts of feeling, while still holding up jewellery for me to admire. 'We're even showing a sequence on the Red Army machine-gunners mowing down the refugees in the mountain passes. Yes, this happened." He held up an amethyst
frontlet, as if it might have belonged to the dead. "The film is being bought by Moscow television!"
They asked us to cut out what the Red Army did, but we said no. So they're transmitting it whole?." He let out an airy laugh. It was an astonishing reversal of power.
His father went on listening to Moussorgsky, but after a while ambled Out into his courtyard. It must have been simpler to survive the war and all the Stalin years, I thought, than to. meet this shock of independence. But Bairam waved the notion away. "No, not for my father. He was already independent. He never believed in the Party. He left it twenty-four years ago.
I asked in astonishment: "Why?" Leaving the Party was tantamount to suicide.
"There was a sort of scandal.. .when he was Minister of Culture. They said he travelled too much - in Turkey and India. The KGB got after him."
I thought: so in Moscow's eyes his ideas had become contaminated. "What did he do after that?" "There was nothing he could do. Mter you'd left the Party, that was the end of you. There was no chance of a lob. So he sat at home and wrote poetry He smiled weakly.
"That's how I remember him, all my childhood."
So whatever had happened, I had not understood; and the old man's look of hurt and reconciliation sprang from something older than his country's independence. A little later I asked him about Oraz - who had written his subversive novel from the heart of government - and Korvus only said: "I know who you mean by this man.
The note of censure was unmistakable. A residual loyalty to the system, perhaps, had been disturbed by that betrayal. He himself had simply resigned, and become a poet.
I longed to find some geographical heart to this diffused nation, but there was none. It owned no Vatican, no Acropolis. Its people had perhaps drifted westwards into the Karakum desert in the tenth century, but even this is unsure. Late in the nineteenth century the advancing Russians found them scattered beneath the Kopet Dagh foothills in fortress villages and nomad camps. Of all the Central Asian peoples the Turcomans had the firmest sense of their own nation, and the strongest will to fight. Yet even amongst them this statehood was a cloudy concept. They thought of themselves first by tribe - Tekke or Yomut or Salor and their frontiers were in constant flux.
Only the little town of Geok-Tepe, I thought - some twenty miles north of the Iranian foothills - might have covertly been remembered as a national shrine. In 1879 the Turcomans had thrown back a czarist army from its walls in a rare reverse for the imperial army in Central Asia, but two years later the Russians returned under their sanguinary general Skobelev - 'Old Bloody Eyes', as the
Turcomans came to call him - and laid siege to Geok-Tepe again.
Inside its three miles of mud-built ramparts the most savage and powerful of the tribes, the Tekke, had assembled ten thousand mounted warriors ft)r a last stand. Artillery failed to dismantle this redoubt, so the Russians sent in sappers to mine the softw earth beneath its walls. After twenty days of siege, a two-ton explosion and a round of artillery blew a breach almost fifty yards wide, killing hundreds of defenders; then the Russian infrantry charged forward with their hands playing, and streamed through the breach. Hand-to-
hand fighting broke the dazed Turcomans. They fled out of the fortress with their women and children, and were massacred indiscriminately in their thousands. For years afterwards the plains were scattered with human bones, and the tribespeople only had to hear a Russian military band playing for their women to start wailing hysterically and their men to fall on their faces in terror.
Yet Geok-Tepe became a legend of heroic failure, and when I mentioned it to Korvus's son Hairam, he grew excited and insisted on driving me there. It was only fifty kilometres away, he said. He knew a local historian who would join us. We would go to the burial-place of the Turcoman war-leader Kurban Murat nearby. "We'll have a party!"
By the time we left next morning, the party had mushroomed uncontrollably. We clattered out of the city in a Volga saloon stuffed with his friends from the state television company. There was a mocking film director, already drunk, a mouse-like scriptwriter, and a cloudless colossus of a historian with a pock-marked face. Scenting festivity, they had abandoned their desks en masse and were stirring up a carnival euphoria.
Even before we left the outskirts, they had waylaid a friend in his butcher's shop. Through a swinging jungle of fly-blown cow and sheep, we thrust our way into a mud-floored storeroom and squatted down in this sordid secrecy for a random picnic. Roundels of bread and saucers of cucumber appeared. and soon the tiny room resounded to the splash and gurgle of vodka. An infectious jubilation brewed up. We toasted one another's countries, families, businesses, futures and pasts. Turcoman and Russian oratory blundered together
in helpless pastiche. Occasionally the butcher came in to snatch up a knife or a bloodstained apron. But we were soon past caring. Shoulders and necks were clasped in inebriate brotherhood, and bawdy jokes recycled as the film director implacably refilled everybody's glass.
Even in my vodka-soaked trance, I recognised the director's strangeness. He was the group's self-appointed jester, but he had the face of a ravaged clown. With his every movement a shock of greying hair floundered above two goitrous eyes. Much of his humour was lost to me, but the rest was subtly self-degrading. The others laughed sycophantically. The role of loker had become his distinction. his passport. He appeared close to breakdown. "English culture! Turcoman culture!" He lifted a shaking glass. "These are high cultures!" Not like the Russians Our glasses clashed. "I love England ... Most of all I love Princess Anne! That is a beautiful woman!" His eyes came bulging close against mine. He was slopping vodka into my glass. "Vodka's the cure for everything!"
Only the historian did not drink. "He is a very serious man," the clown gabbled. "He wants to talk history with you. But he says drink fucks his brains."
The historians's face cracked into a smile, which survived there senselessly a long time later, as if he had forgotten it. All his moods traversed these slow gradients, and remained stranded in his expression after all feeling must have gone.
By now the damp from the earth floor was seeping up through our socks and trousers. But we settled drunkenly into the last crusts and dregs. With dimmed amazement I remembered that the men squatting in this butcher's store were the sophisticates of Ashkhabad. But their formal shirts and ties now looked like pantomine, and our party seemed to unleash in them some deep, earthen craving, older than Islam.
An hour later we were meandering over a potholed road towards Geok-Tepe. For miles Ashkhabad seemed to extend itself over the scrubland in scattered villages of pale-bricked cottages and dishevelled gardens. The country had a vacant, incomplete look, as if it were earmarked for a suburb, and was waiting. Pylons and telegraph poles criss-crossed the plains in a dirty spider-web. Heaps of piping and rubble littered the roadsides. Every building appeared to be unfinished or falling down, with no moment between consummation and decay.
We passed cement and asbestos works, and wine distilleries. Then cotton fields and vineyards appeared, and collective farms named 'Sun' or 'Glory', adorned by faded slogans celebrating strength and labour. Once we crossed the Karakum Canal flowing westwards seven hundred miles from the Amu Darya, the classical Oxus, to fertilise all these oases beneath the Kopet Dagh. It ran in a brown tumult between concrete banks and encroaching reeds.
Soon afterwards, driving through pastureland, we came upon an enormous graveyard. Many dead from the Geok-Tepe massacre had been interred here, and a year afterwards the Turcoman leader Kurban Murat was buried amongst them. He was not only a warrior but a Naqshbandi Sufi, a holy man, and his tomb became a lodestar for pilgrims, and a token of resistance. Far into the Soviet era it was secretly venerated. "It had lust decayed to a mound," the historian said, "but people remembered it."
We scrambled through a gap in the concrete wall. The saint's tomb had been clumsily rebuilt; a brick cube under a clay dome. We had all sobered a little, and now went swaying in silence through the grass towards it. All around us heaved an ocean of nameless mounds misted with white poppies. The historian said: "Two of my great-grandparents were killed in that battle. They're buried
here too." He knew the place, but did not go there. He eased open the door to the tomb of Kurban Murat. Only the director remained outside, suddenly ashamed or indifferent, running his hands over his face in the Moslem self-blessing.
We peered into a wan light shed by the perforated dome. We were alone. The grave-mound swelled huge and constricted in its walls. It was covered in green silk. At its head, pilgrims had left variegated stones, and several hundred rubles lay there untouched. Three times we circled the grave anti-clockwise in the Moslem way, squeezing along the walls. Nobody spoke. Then suddenly, violently, at the grave's head, my companions prostrated themselves and struck their foreheads against its mound. I gazed at them in mute surprise. All at
once the place reverberated with the ancient, tribal prestige of the dead, and of all the unutterable past. Their foreheads were covered with dust when they rose.
Next moment we were outside, among the graves again. A few swallows were twittering in the grass. "Many people come here on the anniversary of the battle" - the historian snaked out his arm to conjure queues - "especially the descendants of the dead." But the dead were mostly anonymous. Here and there a Turcoman samovar, discoloured and rusting, betrayed the presence of a grave, or an inscribed headstone showed. But most were marked only by the raw earth breaking through a weft of shrubs and poppies.
"Do the Naqshbandi come?" I had read that they still pervaded Central Asia.
But he said: "No. They're not important. Our religion is older than theirs, older than Islam. We have our own faith. That's why we can't accept fundamentalism, or Iran, or any of that." His face confronted mine like a blank moon. He wanted me to understand. "The people who come to our shrines, they're not exactly Moslems, you see, although they are called that. Their belief is earlier . . . different."
Lingering beside their clannish mausoleum - the lair of a sainted warrior - I believed him. It reeked of ancestor-worship. The formal practice of the mosque, all the structures and theologies of urban Islam, seemed far away. This was a secret place of tribal memories, and anger. "The Russians say they killed 15,000 of us on that day, many of them women and children, and lost 3.000 of their own." The historian stared across the rough, earthen sea. "They were barbarians.
Yet he had invented the number of enemy dead. Against the piteous Turcoman casualties, the Russians (perhaps minimizing) put their own at only sixty. But the historian's history was glamorous and simple. He was rebuilding his country's past as dangerously free of truth as the Russians had once created theirs. Wandering the graves, he claimed a 7,000-year ancestry for the Turcomans in this land, as if they were the pure descendants of Neolithic men. He had reconstructed them not an idolatrous slavers who had veneered themselves with a more sophisticated faith, but as an ancient, homogeneous people steeped in early wisdom.
Now the director was stumbling along the path beside us. "It's not our tragedy!" His shirt gaped open above a straggling tie. "It's their tragedy, the Russians' tragedy! It's the Russians who had to leave this country, not us. Like the British from India or the French from Algeria!" His clownish eyes strayed over me. "Like all colonialism - it's th& tragedy of the colonisers!"
I mumbled uncertainly. Colonialism seemed to resolve into no such easy patterns. He was drinking himself to death like any Russian.
"It's their disaster, their mistake!" His arm trembled towards the graves: These others were not mistaken An hour later, as we motored toward Geok-Tepe, the odd, reckless fervour overtook him again, and he insisted on stopping. Nobody dared refuse him and soon we were all lolling in the grass with two more bottles of vodka and a bag of half-liquified cheese. Beside us glinted a stagnant pool, where a
concrete sluice was channelling away water from the Karakum Canal. It gurgled miserably. By now my head had floated clear of
my body, and my feet were unfamiliar to me. I recognised them dimly at the far end of my legs. The self-made clown had turned us all into children. We laughed in a gale of idiot mirth whenever he opened his mouth. A few dusty shrubs concealed our scandal from the road. "This is a beautiful Turcoman place," he cried, and everybody laughed.
I was aware only of the historian secretly condescending, touching my arm from time to time, and his eyes said: I'm sorry. And sometimes Bairam pushed bread and cheese at me and whisphered: "Eat, eat, don't Just drink. Save yourself I longed to tip away my glass unseen, but the director watched me with fevered eyes every time he refilled it, and demanded toast after toast. Then - half in ~est at first, half in absolution - he would slither his hands over his face in the Moslem blessing, until they were squirming down his cheeks in cynical desperation. But he muttered: "I'm grey. Only good men go grey ... Look at these others He got up and staggered in the
grass. "This is a beautiful place ... Will you give my love to Princess Anne? . . . Ours is a high culture .
We never reached Geok-Tepe in the end, but somehow circled back to Ashkhabad in a nimbus of alcohol. At the hotel, where my floor-lady usually sat at her post in bored watchfulness, the desk was vacant and I fumbled in its drawer for my room key. Then I stopped. A piece of paper had caught my eye. With a shock I found myself reading a report on my own movements. Scrupulously it noted the times I had left and entered my room, and the identity of those who had visited me. I felt slightly sick. An old
tension took hold of me, familiar from twelve years before, when the KGB had dogged me through the western Ukraine. The paper
reminded me of what I already knew, but which in the pleasure of the day I had forgotten, that this was not a free country.