The phone brought me in from the tiny terrace where I had been taking a beer before dinner. It was Saturday; I had been walking in the Forêt de Soignes on the edge of Brussels, trying not to think too hard about tomorrow. The summer evening light lit the leaves of the trees that sheltered my third-floor flat and played upon the surface of the Ixelles lake, just visible through the gaps in the buildings. I had taken the flat at least in part because the lake was nearby. I did not know then that it was infested with botulism.
I picked up the phone. “How’s morale?” asked David. “Not bad,” I said. “Pretty much packed.”
“Good,” he said. There was a moment’s silence, then: “Before you go, sit. In the hall. With your bags. That’s what Russians do. Just for thirty seconds, a moment of stillness, before you leave.”
I thanked him for ringing; it had been thoughtful. David was a polymath who had taught himself Russian, chaired a London borough council and was now writing a doctoral thesis on Jews and the opera. (He later finished it.) In between he searched for the tombs of the famous and the uploaded pictures to a site called Find a Grave, to which he was a leading contributor. I went back onto the terrace and had another kriek, or cherry, beer, deceptively moreish and sweet. Hangover juice. I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia.
David and I had arrived in Brussels nine months earlier, in the autumn of 1998. We were on contract to the European Commission’s Tacis programme. Tacis was Technical Assistance to the Confederation of Independent States – to wit, Russia and the rest of what had been the Soviet Union, plus Mongolia. We were to find out about the programme’s projects and disseminate examples of good practice so that others could follow suit, either with or without Tacis assistance. (I naively thought we should also tell people what had not worked. I was quickly discouraged from this.) Tacis often took the form of making former Soviets do things the Western way. I quickly concluded that was not always wise. Yet in some areas, especially in the social sphere, much good was quietly done.
We recruited two Belgian colleagues, and took offices in the rue Breydel, a few yards from the Berlaymont, the hideous 1960s EU headquarters building on the east of the city centre. Our office was in an attractive early-century building that had been sympathetically converted. In that we were lucky, for the EU’s vast headquarters buildings were technocratic warts thrust down in the midst of 19th-century Brussels, large parts of which had been torn down to admit them. Fortunately the Berlaymont was encased in sheeting for the entire two and a half years that I was there, having been found to contain asbestos. It looked as if it had been wrapped by the Bulgarian artist Christo. But our own office had its drawbacks. On one occasion the office handyman removed the toilet to fix a plumbing problem; unable to find it, he left the toilet standing in our kitchen for nearly two months. I asked the office manager (who happened to be his wife) if this was the Belgian school of surrealism. She looked at me blankly.
The project began slowly and went on that way, despite our efforts. However, we decided to make as many contacts as we could with the Tacis projects in the CIS. David, who had contacts in parts of Russia, travelled frequently. I did so less often, but visited Moscow and Kyiv; the latter turned out to be enchanting, studded with churches and monasteries, the city centre perched on a bluff above the great glistening expanse of the Dniepr, alive with shades of Vikings and of Kievan Rus.
One day in June David and I were in the slightly soulless Italian restaurant where we often had lunch, surrounded by eurocrats. We were eating a large closed pizza each. We also drank wine, usually a small carafe, although there was always a bottle on the table that the restaurant hoped one would buy. It was, almost always, Aglianico del Vulture. This takes its name from Mount Vulture, a volcano in Basilicata, but always struck me as comic; I suppose not much else did in Brussels.
“This Vulture,” I said, “goes well with grey meat.”
“Yes, doesn't it,” said David. He reached into his pocket for his diary. “I was thinking. Could you pop over to Central Asia next month? See a few people. A week or two should be enough.”
Back in the early 1970s, when Soviet Central Asia, or Turkestan, was still largely closed to foreigners, I had read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches. As a young diplomat in Moscow in the mid-1930s, he was told by colleagues that he would never get permission to visit Central Asia. So he didn’t ask for it. Instead, he bought a railway ticket to Novossibirsk, where he changed onto the then newly-built TurkSib Railway. He was shadowed all the way by NKVD officers, sweating in their city suits, who will have cursed him roundly. The Soviet authorities must have assumed he was a spy, and indeed he likely was in it up to his neck. He eventually succeeded in visiting Alma Ata (now Almaty), Tashkent, Bokhara and Samarkand, and even crossed the Oxus into Afghanistan, reaching what was then the North-West Frontier of British India. Spy or no, Maclean was a wonderful writer and ever since I had read the book as a teenager, the region had fascinated me.
“Yup, okay,” I said.
I changed planes in Munich’s sparkling new airport, all glass plate and steel-wire braces. I was struck by the coffee machines at some departure gates, each with a notice warning the traveller that their flight was too short for coffee to be served and they should take it now. I tried to imagine rioting Germans enraged by lack of coffee.
Almaty was different. I queued for two hours at immigration and customs, then walked out into a dark, unsurfaced area, deserted but for a single taxi. I was then asked for $50 taxi fare to my hotel. After some discussion this became $20, at which point I gave up and got in the car. The ride to the hotel took over half an hour through dark, bare streets. In the hotel, the clerk could not find my booking in the file although I could see it quite clearly, on top. Having reached my room on the 25th floor, I then did battle with the sheet sleeping-bag, a Russian invention which consists of a small aperture into which you insert yourself with difficulty. It resembles a straitjacket. I finally sank into bed with relief at about three, to be woken a few minutes later and offered a massage, which I declined.
Everything improved in the morning. I threw back my curtains to find myself looking straight at the snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan – the Mountains of Heaven – glistening in the sunshine; further down the slopes were bright green alpine meadows and thick woods. The mountains come so close to Almaty that a mudslide in 1921 wrecked the city and killed 500 people. In the opposite direction, the ground sloped gently down to the brown, semi-arid steppe, stretching, featureless, for over 1,000 miles north into Siberia. It was a crucial economic resource, providing grazing for the sheep that vastly outnumbered people in this, the world’s tenth largest country. Yet in the last decade the number of sheep had dropped catastrophically.
I had arranged, through a mutual friend, to meet a western World Bank official in my hotel first thing; he had been friendly in emails, but seemed oddly withdrawn when I greeted him in the lobby, and refused all offers of coffee or breakfast. He said very little. I never found out why. After a half-hour he left, and, disconcerted, I set about my business, making for the Tacis liaison office in the town. Here too I found an oddly strained atmosphere. The office consisted of a single large room; the young Italian in charge of the office took me out into the corridor to talk, and I sensed that he did not trust the Kazakh staff. Yet he was friendly enough, and promised to set up appointments for me for the rest of the day.
Later, his English colleague, a bluffer, more relaxed type, took me to lunch. Almaty seemed to me to be still rather Soviet; the USSR, of course, was only eight years gone. All the street signs seemed to be in Russian. But there were also increasing signs of Turkish influence. There were Turkish restaurants, Turkish banks, Efes and Turkish Tuborg beer and frequent flights to Istanbul and Ankara. At that time, the Turks as a matter of policy seemed to be reaching out to their Turkic neighbours as the Silk Road reopened for business.
It was an attractive place in some ways. In 1999 there were few high-rise buildings apart from the Kazakhstan Hotel (it’s a severe earthquake zone). But there was much early-Soviet architecture, for example the Academy of Sciences, which, I was told, was magnificent within. There were many, many trees, watered by ditches fed from the Tien Shan above, and plenty of shade; the temperature was a balmy 30 degrees C. Foreigners lived well, with trekking in the Tien Shan in summer and superb skiing in the winter. In the evening I went for a drink and a meal with my English colleague. We went to a restaurant that advertised itself as Tex-Mex; it had a choice of eight or nine beers and a very long menu. The tables were crammed with well-dressed young ethnic Russians armed with mobile phones.
But below the surface, I was told, all was not well. Unemployment had spiralled, especially in the dying industrial towns on the steppe; no-one knew the figures, but one source estimated the number of jobless as about a million (in a country of 10 million). One street in Almaty functioned as an informal labour market; the pavements were crowded with women carrying cheap grips, in which they carried working clothes for different types of jobs, from secretary to toilet cleaner – they’d take what was around. It was part of change. Everybody in the old Soviet Union had a job, but some of them did little in practice; those “jobs” no longer existed.
One European official told me bitterly that, as part of a poverty-alleviation scheme, they were helping to institute what was basically a 19th-century workhouse. This was an oversimplification, but it seemed it did indeed provide indoor care for the families of unemployed workers in the steppe rust-belt, who would themselves remain outside and would work in the project’s enterprises so that it would be self-supporting. I was told that there was considerable interest in this locally, because the state no longer had the funds to look after people the way it had. I was scandalized by the idea that the EU was helping fund a workhouse, but was unable to meet the people from the project or get further details. It did not help that my contacts were mostly expats. Anyone who has travelled knows that they love to tell tales to the visitor or the new arrival. I was told of much else that I could not confirm, but it was very hard for a foreigner to verify such stories, or to get an accurate picture of conditions in a country, in a short visit or even, sometimes, a long one.
Late on the afternoon of the second day I left Almaty in a hired car, bound for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It was a three-hour journey. Like Maclean 62 years earlier we followed the foot of the Tien Shan, and I was reminded of a journey of my own some years earlier from Siliguri to Jaigaon, across the Bengal plain; the great massif formed by the collision of India and Asia rises quite suddenly from the plain, and equally suddenly, tumbles back into it on the other side. Once again I wondered at the fact that one can swelter on the plain in tropical summer heat, and see snowpeaks that seem so close one could reach out and touch them.
On the far side, in Bengal, the plain had been fertile. Here there was steppe, nearly as flat, but semi-arid. Land with perhaps 100-350mm annual rainfall is not desert, but to plant it is to ask for trouble, for sooner or later the crop will fail, the organic matter in the land will have been depleted, and the native vegetation will have been destroyed. This in effect was the fate of Kruschev’s Virgin Lands scheme. Left alone, however, such land will support a shifting population of livestock. In Kazakhstan, some of it was in fair condition; certainly better than some of the steppe land in East Asia and North Africa that had been grazed nearly to extinction, and was turning to desert. Nonetheless livestock production was falling.
We stopped once on the journey, where a Kazakh police officer had all the passing cars lined up on a quiet stretch of road and was calmly turning over the drivers for a few dollars each. My Kyrgyz driver simply took his slush fund out of the ashtray and went to pay up. He made no comment; his face was a mask, and I wondered about the future.
After a couple of hours we turned south, towards the mountains and Bishkek. There were no border formalities; one just drove straight through. Kyrgyzstan is about two-thirds the size of Poland. Unlike Kazakhstan, it is virtually all mountainous, with peaks of over 7,000 metres. There is only a small area of semi-steppe in the north. It is here – again, at the foot of the Tien Shan – that the capital is sited. Bishkek, known in the Soviet era as Frunze, had about 900,000 inhabitants. Again, it was mostly low-rise, with a series of parks and plazas in the city centre. And many trees; it claimed to have more natural shade per head than any other capital in the world. It was clearly an Asian city. Ethnic Russians, however, were still said to be about 40% of the population and there were also a fair few Koreans. The ethnic Germans, however, had largely gone, and many Slavs were planning to go; a recent survey had suggested that between 190,000 and 280,000 people expected to emigrate “at some point in the future”.
The town was in good condition and seemed moderately prosperous; there was a new Hyatt-Regency under construction. A splendidly loopy Soviet touch was a large, ornate opera house. Unlike most places in the CIS, they still had an enormous Lenin. He stood in the big modern square in the city centre, leaning forward, arm in the air, in a pose of fraternal exhortation.
Bishkek women dressed to kill. Typical outfits include Lycra cycling pants (I did see one bicycle) worn with much lipstick and big funky earrings. The Russians seem to favour very, very short print dresses, and very, very high heels. A variation on this theme was the skirt that was ankle-length but split nearly to the waist and was so thin that it was almost completely transparent.
In fact, I liked Bishkek. As one now knows, some trouble did lie ahead; but in 1999 the city felt relaxed. There was freedom of speech. I called on the Kyrgyz editor of The Times of Central Asia, the excellent new English-language daily that covered the whole region and had correspondents in Almaty and Tashkent. The government wouldn’t stop her from publishing what she wanted, she said; indeed it tolerated a Russian-language paper which was heavily against it. Inevitably, she was subject to less formal censorship from the paper’s owners. “They do set the general editorial policy,” she said frankly. But it did not seem to bother her. She made a request for assistance which was revealing. She did not want staff training in newspaper production (the paper was extremely well produced), but in Western attitudes to journalism. “We want to understand how you think,” she explained.
In order to find out how she thought, I read the paper. It was well-written, lively, and covered a broad spectrum of politics, industry and the arts. One regular page carried quotes from the three Parliaments. “The difference between erotica and pornography is understood by everyone to the extent of one’s putrescence,” thundered the Speaker of the Kazakh Mazhilis. Quite. I turned to the small ads. “For sale: Genuine Kyrgyz yurt,” said one.
An example of democracy in action was the public row about the national currency, the som, that was going on while I was there. The national bank was under heavy attack from the Government and the public for failing to defend the value of the som, which had been sinking. The national bank kept a dignified silence but allowed a British consultant working with it through Tacis to write a spirited defence of the Bank’s policy. Emptying the national coffers by shoring up the som, he argued, would only destroy its credibility. He told me he was delighted with the article’s reception; it seemed to be changing people’s perceptions of the mechanics of currency and helping them to face up to reality.
Bishkek was not ideal. A consultant for a British firm, a very large Dutchman, had been badly beaten a few months earlier by a group of young men – one of them allegedly a policeman. I was strongly advised not to go out alone at night, and to avoid groups of youths. Exhaust pollution was hideous. The transition to the free market, and the break-up of the Soviet system, had brought real problems. Electricity consumption by industry had dropped, but the number of private connections needed was greater, and although ample power was being produced from the country’s big hydro-electric schemes, the grid could not deliver it. As elsewhere in Central Asia, the departing ethnic Russians and Germans were taking their skills with them. And no-one had had hot water at home for three months, since the communal heating system was switched off for the summer. (It was inefficient anyway, delivering about 25% of the hot water to the consumer.) In the countryside, the end of the state collective farms had left people with their own land. But few holdings were over 20 hectares and in the south of the country, few were over five. These were often not large enough to be viable, or to generate profits for investment. World Bank and EU projects had persuaded many people to form credit unions and to borrow communally, both for working capital for seeds and fertiliser, and for such things as storage facilities. New, more profitable crops had been introduced, such as leeks and red cabbage. But, for many people, life was a struggle to adjust and survive.
Yet somehow the atmosphere was much better than in Almaty, and the city seemed cheerful and open. (It helped that the Tacis office was clearly a happier place, run by a quiet but likeable Englishman.) Kyrgyzstan has had its troubles since, but on my brief visit, I liked it; and I wish it well.
I reserved judgment on my hotel. Sixties-built, once well-appointed, it had been allowed to slide. The towel-rack in the bathroom was heated, although it was 30-32 degrees C outside. The bathroom itself stank of diesel oil. The bed was rock-hard, and the bedside light had no chain; it was switched on and off with a piece of frayed string. There was an air-conditioner, but it made much noise and achieved little. Opening the veranda door instead simply let in the noise of the traffic nine floors below, along with clouds of exhaust fumes. And, worst of all, there were the whores. They sneaked into the lift with you on your way upstairs. They rang you at two in the morning. One knocked on my door after midnight.
None of this is funny. If I ever thought it was, I didn’t after meeting George (not his real name). George was an American pharmacist, from deep down in the Bible Belt. I had met him the previous October in Moscow, where he was staying in the same hotel. He was about 45 and had one ear. He had come to Moscow for his annual sex tour; I forget where he’d been the year before, but he gave me a run-down on what/who you could get there and through which orifice, and how much it cost. He’d chosen Moscow this year after arranging to meet women on a Web site. The women were, ostensibly, looking for marriage. George attended social events with them during the day. At night he had the hotel whores. In between, he sat on a stool in the lobby bar and mused on picking up a Russian wife to take home. “I met quite a nice one today, but she’d be no good – she doesn’t have any qualifications,” he said one night. “I’m hoping to get a doctor. Her earnings would be useful.” George was a friendly sort of chap but a bit dim, and there was not much point in lecturing him on sexual colonialism.
One night we got chatting to a tall, elegant whore, an ethnic Russian from Estonia. She was probably about 30. As a very young woman she had trained as a pharmacist herself, and had been sent to Angola to help provide basic medical care. She was shocked by the poverty, the poor water and the extent of infection. She met an elderly Portuguese, married him and travelled with him to Portugal, where the family ignored her. Then he died, and they virtually kept her prisoner. She escaped back to Moscow. She could have become a pharmacist again, but it paid about $150 a month. In the tourist hotels, she could charge $90 for 45 minutes. “What would you do?” she asked me over her shoulder as she led the slavering, drooling George to the lift.
When I returned to Brussels I ran a Web search with the keywords Russian, dating, introduction; and turned up a host of sites, some very dodgy, others just sad. Usually there were panels and panels of attractive Russian and other Slav women, often with professional qualifications, all seeking Western husbands. Most had a child, and most were either divorced, had never been married – or, in a number of cases, were young widows. Russian men lose their jobs and drink themselves to death, and their wives are carried off to the Bible Belt by men called George with one ear. Could this be why the Russians don’t like us very much?
After a few days I left Bishkek. Unable to find a flight to take me to Tashkent, I had planned to hire a car and driver. Probably we would have gone through Osh and into the Ferghana valley, home of the Heavenly Horses sought by the Emperor in Bruce Chatwin’s memorable article. We would also have crossed a bit of Tajikistan on the way. It would have been a beautiful journey, but gruelling; seven or eight hours to the Uzbekistan border, where I would almost certainly have had to leave the car and cross on foot, meeting another car on the other side in which to drive the remaining hour or two to Tashkent. So I was pleased when the travel agent told me she had secured a ticket on a flight from Bishkek. I told my English friend in the Tacis unit. “Kyrgyzstan Airways,” he echoed. “Oh, well I’ve generally got there eventually, I suppose.” We went out for a large Korean meal. The next day I got up at 5.15 and drove the 25 miles to the airport with a young man called Oleg in his Mercedes.
Oleg was about 25, short, stocky, with very high cheekbones, a shaven head and very light grey eyes. In fact Oleg was the sort you see on newsreels raising red flags on the tops of Reichstags. He was also one of the nicest, and most helpful, people I met on my journey. He had three children and was worried about the future; like so many ethnic Russians, I think he felt a stranger in his own country now, although he had been born in Bishkek and had always lived there. His parents, he said, had already gone “back” to Russia, and he was not sure what to do. Probably he would follow them.
I enjoyed the ride through the thin golden light of the early morning. Oleg helped me check in before he left and then we were driven out across the tarmac, less than 20 of us. Ahead of us was a small, very short trijet a little bigger than a Learjet, with a huge tailplane, and a round nose that stood higher off the ground than the rest of the plane. This was the YAK-40. We trooped up the tail stairs under the tailplane to find a large luggage rack; there was no hold. There were no doors to the rack, either. I pushed my briefcase as far in as I could, hoping it would not decapitate someone in an accident. The inside walls of the aircraft were unlined, and looked like the unfinished fibreglass you see on the inside of a kayak. The seats were very small, with low backrests and no head restraints. But they were covered with a very pretty chintz material.
I strapped myself in beside a large American evangelist in shocking pink. Three smartly-dressed crew members disappeared into the cockpit. The flight attendant stood up and did her safety briefing in Russian, then, noticing that there were foreigners aboard, smiled nervously and said something like this: “Well come on board, ladies and shentleman. Our flight time to Tashkent will be one whore, fifty minuets. Hev a, er, have a heppy plane!”
What followed was one of the most memorable flights of my life. There have been a few. Landing at dawn in Dominica, amongst the Stratocruisers and Super Constellations; a light aircraft in the Ecuadorian jungle; circling the crater of Cotopaxi; nosing down the Paro valley in Bhutan, looking for the airstrip during the monsoon. But the flight from Bishkek to Tashkent was the best of them all. The little YAK-40 rolled gently, and quite quietly, down the runway and eased itself imperceptibly into the air at a very low speed, so that I only realized we had taken off when I saw the fields falling away from us. I have flown in many aircraft, and once I was learning how to glide; but never have I been in an aircraft that felt so utterly at home in the air as this one did. They must have had to tie it down on the tarmac. We seemed to float through the air like a soaring bird, utterly stable, as we climbed up the side of the towering Tien Shan. As we drew level with the first high peaks, we drifted to the south, and the real magic began. Snow-capped summits rose to meet us, then fell away into deep valleys carved by glaciers. Long lakes snaked down the deeper valleys; mysterious tracks traversed the hillsides; here and there was a square enclosure of drystone walls for animals, in the middle of nowhere, that could have been there for one year or five hundred. I saw a group of bright blue and turquoise and bright green lakes like semi-precious stones in the morning sun. Slowly we glided across the Tien Shan until, in the far distance, I could see the gap where the Ferghana Valley must be. In the very far distance beyond, I wondered if I could see the High Pamirs at the junction of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Then I looked back a little and realized that I must be looking into China. The mountains turned away from us; below was the northern slope of the Tien Shan, deeply scored by erosion, and the fertile strip of land at its foot. Then the ground started to flatten and turn brown; towns started to appear, and factory chimneys. We were over Uzbekistan. But, just for an hour, I had felt again that sense of wonder that I had thought I would not feel again, because I had been travelling too long.
Tashkent airport had a dire reputation amongst travellers, with rumours of three-hour queues for immigration, and customs declarations that required your great-grandmother’s birth certificate to be attached in triplicate (with photographs). I left the happy plane with regret. I need not have worried. I have never got out of an airport so quickly. The immigration officer was young and pretty and she smiled at me.
The first person I saw as I left the terminal was a fleshy young Uzbek waving a placard with my name on it. “My name is Timur. My job is to take care of you, and if you like I will take you around Tashkent tonight and show you the sights. Now, this is our largest hotel. Note the excellent modern design of the buildings, the wide streets. That is Friendship Boulevard. Our people here are noted for their friendship. For their traditions...” Unremarked, a spectacular bright-blue Russian cathedral with silver onion domes flashed past. “...Which go back to the time of etcetera, down there is the Museum of Fine Arts, this is the park which we consider the centre of the city...” There was a large equestrian statue in the middle. “Who’s the guy on the horse, Timur?” I asked him. Timur collapsed with laughter. “The guy on the horse!” It was obviously the funniest thing he’d heard since Genghis Khan left sacks full of skulls all over Europe. “The guy on the horse! It’s Amur Timur, of course. The guy I’m named after.” Timur. Timur the Lame. Tamerlane. Ah.
Tamberlane would recognize little of Tashkent; neither, sadly, would Fitzroy Maclean. Indeed, the only older building I saw was the charming Romanov Palace in the central park, built for Grand Duke Nicholas Constantinovich, who was exiled to Turkestan in the late 19th century for womanising, swindling and generally being well dodgy. (He fathered a string of children by various mothers in the city.) Everything else was gone, for on April 25 1966 the city was shaken apart by an earthquake that left few buildings standing. So the Soviet authorities decided to rebuild this city of (today) 2.3 million as a showpiece of the system. In many respects they succeeded. To be sure, some of the blocks of flats I saw were depressing, but they were at least low-rise (for obvious reasons). And the city centre was one of the greenest I have seen. It was also one of the most alive. It was designed to be lived in, to be a meeting point, a social focus, for the city’s people. It seemed to have succeeded brilliantly.
I decided to explore without Timur, telling him as politely as possible that he would not be required until Monday morning, 48 hours hence. In the meantime, I decided to catch my breath.
I had been intending to stay in the Uzbekistan Hotel, but when I mentioned this to a colleague in Tashkent he issued a whore warning. “I’ll book you into the Meridien,” he said. “Unless, of course...” “No,” I said. The Meridien was totally lacking in character. It was also clean, cheerful and air-conditioned. And I arrived in time for breakfast. (Tashkent is an hour behind Bishkek.) So I sat down with a plate of ham and eggs. Then I tried to work out how to get to the park with the guy on the horse. It was not far away but of course, without Timur, I got hopelessly lost. Eventually, however, I turned a corner and found myself looking straight at the horse’s arse. Still, that was better than being stuck with one all day.
Timurlane stood at the post-Soviet centre of the city. The old one was Lenin Square, about a mile away. Between the two ran Sayilgoh, also known as Broadway. It was a straight, narrow street through the park, closed to wheeled vehicles and bordered by trees and grass, full of small stands selling shashlyk and drinks and surrounded by tables with parasols where one might linger at will. On the path crouched traders of several kinds, selling cheap jewellery and related tat. But most were selling paintings. It must have been one of the largest open-air art markets in existence. Most of the art was a disappointment. There were gauzy young girls communing with nightingales; faux Monarchs of the Glen before stylised mountains; strangely static rushing rivers; crumbling mausolea of Timurlane with dodgy perspectives and luridly blue domes; kitschy, busty nudes masquerading as tasteful eroticism. But it was cheerful enough stuff, God knows. I wandered slowly past the stands, stopping now and then, enjoying, after a hectic week, the sensation of not being in a hurry.
Then I saw a small, dark canvas, perhaps a foot square. It was conifer green, roughly finished; offset to its left, two figures scurried through the gloom, poorly-defined, but one clearly male, the other female; the man carried a candle which threw a luminosity around them. There were few details, but the sense of urgency and movement was such that one could almost feel a slight breath of air as their garments flowed around them and see the wisps of smoke from the candle drifting into the clear Central Asian air. I knew I had to have it.
The artist’s name was Bakhtiar. The matter was settled soon enough. He wanted 6,000 Uzbek som, about $40 at the official rate, perhaps $15 at the real one. I offered 3,500 som. (In Central Asia, unlike the Arab world, one does not demand extortionate amounts, or offer the derisory; opening bids will be about a third above or below the final price.) In the event, we settled on 4,000. Later I felt guilty. I had paid a man $10 for an oil he had painted, and had the nerve to shake his hand having done so. “I don’t know what you are worrying about,” someone told me later. “It’s not much it’s true, but I bet it’s more than he’d got if you hadn’t shown up.” Maybe. Later I made a more prosaic purchase: a local cassette of Joe Cocker. An Uzbek Joe Cocker bootleg. Every home should have one.
That evening I stayed up long enough to watch the news on CNN and then I collapsed into bed, realizing as I did so that I had not slept properly for exactly a week. Confused images hopped through my brain, like a monitor that has been left on for too long. Elena was sitting on Timur’s horse in the park waving at the passers-by; then it turned out the horse had only one ear and was grinning as it cantered off to leave a yurt standing on the plinth, then the flap of the yurt flipped back to reveal a Kyrgyz Airlines flight attendant standing demurely in the entrance, hands clasped in front of her. “I will now demonstrate the safety features of the YAK-40 yurt,” she said. She faded away to be replaced by a colleague from the EU office in Almaty, brandishing a bottle of vodka. I fell asleep.
The next morning I felt rested and ready to explore further. The soul of a city is best seen on a Sunday, when people are doing what they like doing, and not what someone else thinks they should be doing. I spent part of the morning with ex-colleagues from Syria at their office in the diplomatic compound; later, after three, I had nothing to do but wander through Tashkent (but slowly, mindful of the 40-degree heat).
Sayilgoh was just as busy. Everyone ambled through it in a relaxed fashion, dressed in an amazing variety of clothes. Like Bishkek, Tashkent is partly Russian and Orthodox, and partly Asiatic; but the Muslim influence is much stronger. There were plump, quiet Uzbek girls in black, unveiled but with their hair covered, their skirts below their knees. Tall blonde Russian girls with high cheekbones strode along on block heels wearing light cotton summer dresses. Studenty girls of both races stood on corners in jeans and tee-shirts. The constant, slight, smoky whiff of shashlyk combined with the warmth and the slight smell of dust in the air to remind me of Africa.
At the end of Sayilgoh, a large circle of people gathered round a barker who was introducing his teenage son, a contortionist. Dressed only in tracksuit trousers, the boy stood on his hands with his feet resting on his shoulders before cheerfully twisting himself into less and less feasible forms like an exhibition of knots at a naval museum. It was too much to watch, so I moved slowly on through the shade of the neem trees and across to the concrete plaza across the road, where two large, shallow lidos were separated by a narrow walkway; this walkway was sprayed by a row of water jets that shot ten feet or more into the air and cast a fine cooling moisture through the sunlight. Crowds of people, mostly young, splashed about in the lidos or sat together under the parasols by their side, next to the inevitable shashlyk stands. Every now and then a group of children or teenagers decided to brave the walkway, shrieking and giggling. A young Uzbek woman of startling beauty, dressed in a simple white cotton shift, stepped along it like a cat, laughing and holding her little boy by the hand.
Above the lidos, up a short ramp, was what had been, in Soviet times, the town square. In a sense it still was, as the most important Government buildings lay at its far side. But the heart had gone out of its great windswept expanse and in the soft summer afternoon it looked slightly forlorn, like a set for a film that has long been made, shown and forgotten. At one side was a plinth, surmounted by a globe. Until 1991 it had held the largest statue of Lenin in the Soviet Union. From below the ramp came the sound of splashing and laughter. People preferred Sayilgoh, shashlyk and the lido to Lenin Square.
To the right of the square was some wooded parkland. In the distance amid the trees was a low wooden building. Policemen milled around it, but that was not unusual; there were policemen everywhere in Tashkent, a legacy of the previous February’s bombings by Islamic dissidents. When I came closer I found that the building was one of two attractively-proportioned structures of young, blond wood, still with a resinous smell; they enclosed a graceful ornamental garden. At the far end of the garden was a plinth, and on the plinth a small orange flame guttered in the light breeze. The wooden structures were pavilions; on the inside walls were large, thin plates of steel inscribed with names. Above each plate was the name of a province, or vilayet (Uzbek is related to Turkish). The name Namangan caught my eye, as I had recently written a piece about a furniture manufacturer who worked in that town in the Ferghana valley. I remembered his name, and looked for it on the plates for Namangan Vilayet. Sure enough, there were four or five who shared his name, simply inscribed with their names and dates, 1919-1944, 1921-1942. I liked the memorial, with its flowers and grass and smell of fresh wood. It was not the Menin Gate, but sometimes less is more.
Behind the monument, a hundred yards or so away, the ground seemed to fall away sharply. I went over to the edge and found myself looking down a steep grassy bank to a pathway that ran beside a fast-flowing, yellow-green river, perhaps forty or fifty feet wide, between heavily-wooded banks. On the banks were young men in trunks, most sitting peacefully and watching the water. Now and then the water erupted briefly as someone belly-flopped into it and swam like crazy against the current for a minute or two, then grasped an overhanging branch and hauled themself out, to sun themselves contentedly on the bank again. I wandered slowly down the riverside path and found that it ran right below and behind the grandiose buildings that fronted Lenin Square; though they were less impressive from this side, with dirty windows filled with junk, and surrounded by sheds. The river was more interesting. Every few hundred yards there was a fountain stuck into the water so that great clouds of gossamer-thin spray drifted across the path and cooled me down. I rounded a corner to find a square of tennis courts where large numbers of young people were batting balls across the net. They wore trunks or sundresses, and made little noise, but they were laughing and smiling. I felt as if I had stepped back in time and was walking along the towpath of a river in a North British town in the 1950s, before there were computer games or Sunday supermarkets, and people strolled out after Sunday lunch to play with a ball and swim in the canal or take the sun. The atmosphere was contagious. And then I emerged from another cloud of gossamer spray from a fountain to find a kingfisher standing peacefully in the grass by the path, digesting its dinner. I came closer and closer but it made no move until I was five or six feet away, at which point it flew away, but slowly, not because it was frightened but because it thought it was somehow supposed to be. I liked Tashkent.
But the next day was Monday, and it was time to do some work. Timur was supposed to pick me up but of course he didn’t, so an EU official, Mark, came himself in his own brand-new right-hand-drive Land Rover with British plates. At the office Mark hired a driver called Hassan who drove a Lada with a front passenger seat that rocked backwards and forwards. I perched on this and tried to look like a European Expert.
Today, Uzbekistan has a very dark reputation in the West, but in 1999 this was not so, although the first signs of trouble – including Islamic dissidence, potentially violent – were beginning to be more visible abroad. I reserved judgment at the time. I did find that Tashkent reminded one far more of Moscow than Bishkek or Almaty, both of which were acquiring Western overtones. This was no disrespect to Tashkent. Indeed, the cars in the street were, if anything, newer and smarter than they had been elsewhere; it was just that they were all Russian, whereas in the other capitals they no longer were. It was a detail, but telling. And again, the trams and trolleybuses; they were a lot older than they are in other cities, but were a lot more numerous, were not sprayed with graffiti, and were moving. This did remind me of Moscow, where the Metro trains were ancient but swept into the magnificent stations every 90 seconds without fail. (Tashkent also has a Metro with similar marble halls for stations, but I did not go on it. I did see the ventilator shafts, the tops of which, to my delight, were disguised as large red mushrooms with white spots.) However, Russian was no longer an official language of Uzbekistan. Uzbek is a Turkic language but is influenced by Russian, Farsi and Arabic and quite a few Turkish words are of Arabic derivation, too. (A project manager gently upbraided his tea lady for not bringing me water. “Abadan moya?” he asked.)
Westerners working in the curious admixture of nationalism and bureaucracy found themselves confused. A few said that they found working in Uzbekistan profoundly difficult, but people in Kazakhstan had told me much the same thing. Indeed, one Western expert told me that he had an excellent relationship with the responsible Uzbek minister, who knew a great deal about his work and provided constant guidance and support. I spent a pleasant hour or two with a Danish banking advisor who explained how his national counterparts had regarded him, at first, as a more-or-less useful way of getting their cronies onto overseas study tours. Danes are not noted for their patience but he found some, and after some months, a modus operandi emerged. He had a charming, attractive and very young Uzbek-Russian assistant who came to meet me at the front gate on heels like shooting sticks, wearing a dress that ended somewhere around her hips. It must have been awfully uncomfortable, but it certainly made an impression.
I called, too, at the temporary office of a new Swedish-run EU project. Their brief was to monitor the relationship between agriculture and the environment by means of remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems. This was all high-tech stuff, but my Swedish colleagues had little equipment so far; indeed, as yet they had no access to a toilet. “We hope to have the keys tomorrow,” they told me, “but, being on the 13th floor, it’s a bit inconvenient.” I sympathized. “I expect you can hang on,” I replied. They’d have their toilets tomorrow, or if not, soon thereafter; they were, quite rightly, not very worried about it.
I returned to the EU office to meet Mark for lunch. Afterwards, we were sitting at his desk when a water-pipe burst in the UN Development Programme office on the floor above. We charged around moving computers and pictures and siting buckets all over the floor, muttering about inter-agency cooperation. As the flood worsened, I developed a nosebleed, and had to slump down beside Mark’s desk between the jets of water. The flow of water increased along with the flow of blood. I fled into the courtyard, handkerchief at my face, and headed for Hassan’s Lada. Hassan, of course, had not been in it. He had been over the road reading the paper, and had left the windows up. We climbed into the fiery furnace and lumbered off down the track between the neem trees to my next appointment. I wondered what the kingfisher was doing.
Hassan appeared at the hotel at a quarter to two in the morning, just as I had asked him to. In the one day I had known him, I had come to like him a great deal. I settled into the Lada’s rocking chair and watched the night streets of Tashkent flash by. We shook hands at the departure gate and then an Englishwoman and I helped a confused young ethnic Russian through emigration. “This is first time I do this. I frightened,” she confessed.
We took off at half-past three, climbing in a rapid, tight spiral – I was told, for security reasons. Most of the passengers went to sleep. I watched the steppe appear below. We were flying west and it was a slow dawn, with ample time to admire the slow change of colour in the clouds and the orange tint spreading across the upper atmosphere. Below, huge salt pans drifted past at the north end of the Aral Sea, a wrecked, tragic landscape; two tiny gas-flares remained in sight for a long time, lost in the vast hazy plain. Slowly the steppe gave way to the Russian countryside with its great woods and patchwork of fields. Later, flying over the Ardennes, their woods and gorges soft in the summer morning, I reflected that I had fulfilled a long-term ambition; I had seen, albeit briefly, a region that was effectively closed until I was in my thirties.
When I got back to my Brussels flat, my first action was to take Bakhtiar’s painting from my briefcase and to set it on the mantelpiece. It stayed there until I left the city a year or two later, and today it hangs on the wall of my office in Manhattan. It is a little dark-green oil, about a foot square. Out of the gloom come two indistinct, flowing figures. They are in a hurry; that much is clear, but do they have an assignation? Or are they running from something in the green gloom behind them? Sometimes the painting catches my eye as I put on my coat at the end of the day, before I head out into the cold winter New York night, and I remember throwing back the curtains that first morning in Almaty to see great white peaks floating above emerald-green Alpine meadows. I remember Bishkek too, with its neoclassical opera house in the centre of Asia, and people in their summer clothes walking arm-in-arm under the shade of the trees past an enormous Lenin. I also remember that wonderful flight, gliding across the high yak-meadows past patches of snow with 7,000-metre summits in the distance, and glacial lakes set into the landscape like bright green and turquoise eyes. I can also smell shashlyk and dust, and see a green city with pools and rivers and people swimming in the sunshine, a kingfisher in the city centre, and a beautiful laughing young Uzbek woman in white, stepping like a cat between the fountains, with her child in tow.
Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.