19 May 2006

Travels in Central Asia

I finished two more books, Journey to Khiva and Night Train to Turkistan. I know I’ve at least started Night Train to Turkistan, but I don’t know if I finished it before. I doubt it, since I didn’t really have a desire to finish it this time. It’s about a group of people who want to travel from Xi’an to Kashgar in China in 1987. I would LOVE to travel from Xi’an to Kashgar, but the author managed to make the trip sound like complete torture. There was hardly a word about what they saw or the people they met on the trip. Instead it was page after page of dealing with Chinese bureaucrats and riding on scary buses. I’ve had enough of that myself to not need to read about it in some else’s book. So I don’t recommend it.

I liked Journey to Khiva better, although I skipped quite a bit. The author’s main interest in Central Asia was from the perspective of Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries and that really isn’t my interest. Lots of Central Asia travel books suffer from this flaw of talking too much about Europeans in Central Asia instead of Central Asians in Central Asia. Anyway, I skipped the parts about Europeans and enjoyed the rest.

Except that he was incredibly disappointed with Khiva and Samarqand because they didn’t live up to his ideal- too restored. (We often hear this about the Great Wall of China too.) Personally, I don’t have a big problem with restorations. In fact, my favorite historical sites are usually ancient places that have been restored and are still in use, like Qayt Bay mosque in Cairo and the Dome of the Rock. I really didn’t have a problem with Tash Rabat which really wasn’t restored well at all-it was fun to be able to go inside with my children instead of looking at a heap of rocks. I saw enough ruins in Israel to last me a lifetime. Besides, is it really less authentic to see an imperfect restoration than to see a heap of rubble? The terra cotta warriors would have been a lot less impressive of they’d been left in pieces as they’d been lying there almost since they were placed in the pits. I’ll (usually; there are exceptions) just be happy to be in those places at all and not complain about what others have done.

Glazebrook is a good writer and there were a couple of quotes from the book that I particularly liked:

Impossible ever to complete your travels into a survey of the globe, when you look at the thinness of the line traced across its surface by each trip: you can’t possess yourself of the world in a net formed of those criss-cross lines, as you might take home a melon in a string bag, but it is an allowable illusion, when you stand on a mountain pass and strain your eyes to see beyond what it appears, to massage eyesight into making a grand intersection now and then, so that the world does not seem hopelessly and infinitely large.

And we’ve experienced scenes like this more than once, especially on longer-distance rides:

I could see the van was packed to the windows with people. A glance within encountered the same dull and hostile glint of eyes. But when I made it clear I was joining the ship, the crew’s attitude altered at once, the women’s especially. As a frosty mass separates into particles under a charitable sunbeam, the crowd in the minibus stirred, under a charitable instinct, and separated into a collection of individuals, some welcoming and some not, but each reacting as a fellow creature to the conundrum of finding me a space. A seat was out of the question- there were already fourteen people of a half a dozen races in a van with seats for ten- but the minute I was aboard I was amid the friendliness of an Indian bus, or a Turkish dolmus, a fraction of room squeezed for me on a wheel-arch, those nearest to me packing robes and children tighter together and smiling out of softened dark eyes. My spirits rose...

On reaching Urgench it became a great question amongst them as to where I should be put down. I had become their own foreigner, an infant in their hands to be passed to the boat’s gunwhale and thrown into the sea with directions for my route ashore. The van even waited an instant, when I was set down, and all those friendly eyes watched me set out. Then they were gone.

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