THE ROAD TO SAMARKAND
I am always pleased when my blog tells me that I have a follower in relatively remote parts of the world. I was delighted recently to see that I now have a follower in Moldova. Whoever you are, original and intriguing world citizen, a thousand welcomes, and I wish you all the very best, and would like to confront you with the surprising fact that my former county town of Carlisle, Cumbria has a strong connection with your country. I don’t know why exactly, but at the Sands Centre, they regularly host your capital’s ballet, the Chisnau Ballet, perhaps just possibly because it is a little bit cheaper than the analogous Bolshoi. Though I seriously wonder what your nation’s dance team thought of Carlisle last time they were there, and assuredly it can’t possibly be in the same league as your venerable Chisnau, and I blushingly apologise for the deficiency. I would have liked you to have assured the Moldovan dancers with the impossible, namely that it (meaning Carlisle’s undeniable narcoleptic effect on visiting foreigners) won’t happen again. But sad to say, Carlisle post-1990, might well have jazzed itself up, with smart wine bars and expensive patisseries and all the rest, but it is still bloody old Carlisle, and always will be, university city notwithstanding (apparently near the bottom in the league tables, the last time I didn’t get round to taking a fascinated look). Nothing can be done about it, any more than those luculent gems of the UK NE, meaning South Shields or Middlesbrough or Sunderland, can be transmogrified by having a bar filled with Aubrey Beardsley prints, and 50 types of Chardonnay on offer. Nor even baskets full of ciabatta, nor even black olive bread will do the trick, in lieu of the local and supposedly matchless ham stotties and filled baps, which I always imagine taste exactly like filled nappies/diapers might taste. In all cases, it is a fact that there is something heavy and vaguely threatening in the air that defeats these places, and frankly if it is vivid in the air, there is damn all to be done by way of effective remedy.
Another connection. Only about 6 months ago my immediate neighbours here in the Kythnos port were Moldovans. He was a big sturdy lad of about 28, with a friendly decidedly West Cumbrian face(ditto at least 95% of Albanian and Kosovan males, and don’t ask me why this is) and his wife was maybe 5 years younger. She was small and thin and doll-like and very shy, and a fitting complement to her husband being a stout and gently beefy bloke. They had the most beautiful little baby girl you have ever seen, one who stopped you in your tracks, she looked so delicately angelic, so that you thought she must have come from another world, and assuredly one where there was neither Coca Cola, nor Lord of the Flies just down from the Bullingdon Club, aka George Osborne, nor Invaluable Customer Feedback, nor anything called We Are Here To Please, And We Are Called Logistics. The young family survived by his doing casual work in the supermarkets, but it must have been tough going because one day they just vanished, unable to afford their rent. I don’t think they relocated to Athens, but simply returned to impoverished Moldova. One night, just before they disappeared, I heard the young wife sobbing in the small hours, the mournful lyrical desperation of someone who at perhaps 23 has way too much, meaning literally far too little, on her plate. Her crying was haunting, the kind of sorrowful noise that women without resources, power or a sense of personal independence, have been making since time began. They wept like this young Moldovan woman wept in e.g. Shakespeare’s plays, in the Old Testament, and in the sometimes tragic novels of Yashar Kemal. Her husband was completely silent during her harrowing Biblical sobbing, and the baby likewise was not awoken by her mother’s eternal lament.
Apropos obscure destinations, a few years ago my well-travelled daughter Ione talked about going round the Central Asian Republics, or ‘The Stans’ as they are sometimes genially known. I took a close look through her travel guide, and the biggest obstacle that I could see was the demanding and complex visa requirements. The most authoritarian and worrying country of the lot, Uzbekistan, had of course the most taxing requirements. Ione said she wanted to go from one republic to the other, as would anyone else, but then the visa demands for transiting between the various republics were so byzantine they had my head spinning. It was worse than advanced chess, and I read the stuff three or four times and was no wiser. One thing is for sure, namely that some of these places do not like casual travellers going exactly where they want, and doing what they want, and worse still reporting on what they see to the outside world.
Uzbekistan is renowned for its hopeless lack of human rights and its dreadful torture record, even though President Karimov denies any infractions whatever, other than those drummed up by western mischief-makers. His country is landlocked and bordered by Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. On the lines of cherchez la femme to explain a great many puzzling and sometimes catastrophic emotional dramas, qua as in Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, when it comes to flagrant torture and lack of human rights, simply search for the charismatic natural resource. Did you know that Uzbekistan has the fourth largest gold reserves in the world, and is also an exporter of a great deal of natural gas? Its cotton industry is legendary too, and under the Soviets they polluted the place to hell, in a bid to ever increase the mammoth production. Geniuses that they were, from the 1960s onwards, they managed to shrink the Aral Sea to now less than half of what it was.
In 2005 when a UK doctor friend of mine was doing some voluntary work in Uzbekistan, there was massive unrest and rioting , and over 700 folk were killed in the Andijan area. There are substantial minorities of all of these ethnic groups, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens, Kazakhs etc, in all of the Stans, and in the case of Kyrgyzstan, where there also many Uzbeks, things can get incendiary. Kyrgyzstan’s second city is the interestingly named Osh, and in 1990 terrible riots broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and 300 were left dead. 20 years later in 2010, again in Osh, in riots attempting to eject yet another tyrant, President Bakiyev, 400 were killed in June alone. However things are far from good for many ordinary and innocent Kyrgyz folk inside their own country, and there are several refugee camps for them just over the border in Uzbekistan.
That said, there must still be something magnetic about even the most appalling homeland, as I learnt when I took a taxi driven by an Uzbek, one August when I was teaching fiction in Cambridge. About 50, workaholic and infectiously cheerful, he was toiling all the hours God sent, in order to buy a nice house in Tashkent, the Uzbekistan capital. I think he quoted about £40,000 as the Uzbek equivalent of what would get you a fine mansion in the capital. And of course before the Soviet take-over of all the Stans, they were probably best known in the west as the focus of fabled romantic drama, fairytale dreams, palaces, intrigue, the glorious Silk Road, and of snorting bejewelled camels laden with even more precious and sparkling jewels. I even called my first novel after one of their cities, Samarkand. Then there are the equally sonorous Tashkent, Bukhara, Bishkek and Dushanbe.
Osh, as well as being a harrowing site of massacre and disarray, will only ever make me think of Ione’s all in one suit, she wore when she was 18 months old. It was called Osh Kosh B’gosh, and I believe it was a leading brand. To be honest I am not too desperate just yet to visit any of the Stans, but I really would like to visit Armenia and Georgia, which of course are both in the former Soviet influence area. You should hear the choral singing, many centuries old, performed in the two churches there. I heard the Georgian variety on a CD in beautiful and equally remote Alston, East Cumbria, 5 years ago, in 2010, and it will surely stay with me for the rest of my days.