When you work in urban design, you sometimes get very passionate about your work making cities better and just loving cities. A few years ago I decided to take a part of a 1910 map of Paris (pre-freeway age) and wrap it around my shoulder. I have a life long relationship with Paris. Not all of it, but parts of it. The parts represented on the map. MY parts.
I love maps. I love cities. I love streets. It was the obvious thing to do. I got it done at Roxy Tattoo in Copenhagen. Roxy was Denmark's first female tattoo artist forty years ago. Now her daughter and granddaughter work there, too. It's so not hipster fancy, thank god. It's down to earth cool.
When I went in to talk about the idea, I also had an idea for a Kirkegaard quote in Helvetica. Roxy's daughter was unimpressed. "Everyone's doing text these days."
Then I showed her the map of Paris and where I wanted it. She was clearly interested. As we discussed it, Roxy herself was inking in the background. She is a gruff woman of few words. I love it. She stopped her work and came over.
"What the hell are you talking about a map?"
Her daughter explained my idea. She listened and just harumphed. "Never seen that before..." and she walked back to her client.
Her daughter was amazed. "Mum... you've done over 20,000 tats and you've never seen a map?!" She was incredulous.
"There was one asshole years ago who got a treasure island map on his stomach. That's it."
Right then and there, I knew I wanted Paris. There were no decent results on Google at that time - 2012. I went for it.
I ended up liking my new tat. Got loads of positive comments. So I decided to expand the concept. I extended it with my favourite street in Montreal - Rue St. Viateur. Or at least the few blocks I like the best. On my map you can ride your bike from the Eiffel Tower to my favourite café - Club Social.
Now I'm going to add sections of my favourite streets in cities all over the world. It won't be a sleeve or a torso tat. Just an extension of the existing one.
A map of my urban world.
Asteroid attack on Rue St Viateur.
Rue St Viateur taking form.
Rue St Viateur - now as permanent sheet design. Oops. Remember not to sleep without the bandage on the first night.
The town was vertical. Buildings were pinned to the side of the mountain like dusty concrete medals on the chest of an emperor. The streets were a tangle as they switched back and forth and undulated with every crease in the mountain's skin.
From the road below, bumping along in a bus, I had seen the town of Karimabad on the hill and was drawn to it, to rest and recover my strength, for no more reason than it's precocious location. The brilliant autumn sun was intoxicatingly warm on my back after days travelling from the freezing north, from China along the Karakorum Highway.
My body was weak with illness and less than efficient at fighting off the chill. It gallantly raised it's sword for a moment, in a symbolic gesture, before retreating and leaving me to shiver through the night and most of the day. I needed to pause to soak up the sun and gather my strength.
The walk up from the highway was grueling. I rested several times on old rock walls beside the dusty path. Well-tread winter paddocks were empty, the shepherds still grazing their flocks in higher alpine meadows. I traded chocolate chip cookies for small, crisp apples with two young girls carrying bulging baskets. Their smiles were medicinal and their eyes twinkled brightly.
I found a tiny, six-room hotel and discovered that I was the only guest. I sat alone in the dining room for dinner and breakfast, surrounded by maps of the mountains glued loosely onto peeling green walls. Two staff kept attentive, protective eyes on my needs; Imran the cook and Mamood the manager.
Between them they nursed me with foods to complement my illness, watching me gain my strength back. After I finished a mildly spicy meat dish one evening, Mamood was pleased. His weathered face creased up into an intricate road map of wrinkles. A moment after he went back into the kitchen, Imran's face stuck through the curtain with a warm, triumphant smile.
I walked through the town each day, gently melting into it's rhythms. I played cricket with the young shopkeeper in front of his shop, along the one straight stretch of narrow road in the town. We used a small stool for stumps and a bald tennis ball to bowl with. The games usually ended in laughter shortly after they began, the ball invariably getting whacked over the low buildings and bouncing down the steep hill, chased by tiny spectators.
I would often walk up to the chemist's and talk with the proprietor. He was a learned man, educated in the south, who spoke good English and enjoyed the chance to practice it over cups of tea. He was, however, so deeply committed to his craft that all he enjoyed speaking about was the scores of other travellers who had come to him for medicine and the treatments he efficiently prescribed. The town was small but it was impossible to gauge an exact size; only from high on the distant other side of the valley would all the houses and farms be revealed at once.
Rounding certain bends in town, the ground seemed to drop away and the valley floor was presented almost between my feet. From these lofty perches, the tiny plots of land beside the highway below were inconsequential. The occasional vehicle crawled along the thin line of the highway which, like an errant length of spiders web in the wind, floated off down the valley.
In the narrow valley, however, everything seemed irrelevant shivering beside the roaring Hunza Nagar River: a fluid creature with a skin of metallic grey, flecked with white, that made the mountains vaguely humble. It was as though they had parted for the sole purpose of allowing the water to run it's noble course. The river seemed purposeful, knowing perhaps that the quicker it flowed, the quicker it would reach the mightier Indus River and join its parade south towards the sea, like a spine through the country.
To the other extreme, I could turn and look up to the peak onto whose robes I was clinging. Up past the scrub covered slopes with their earthy browns and greens to the peak that rocketed up into the sky. It's grey rock was tinged with blue, and the peak itself topped brilliantly with a white crown that glimmered in the sun.
In that hillside town I felt like I was at a constant midway point between heaven and earth, the peak and the valley, and was pleased to rest in my purgatory for a time. One afternoon, while writing on a bench in the sun outside the little hotel, I looked up, towards the mountain, for no reason known to the rational side of my mind. At that precise moment in the relentless movement of time I was witness to the launch of a massive avalanche, from near the top of the pointed peak.
In an awesome display, the surging avalanche billowed into a cloud of snow that seemed to breathe itself into life as it crept down the sheer face. With the lazy speed at which it moved I gained a sense of how high the mountain was and it's distance from me and the town. I also realized also that it was moving silently, without a whisper, without the accustomed roar that marked the fall of avalanches I had witnessed before, in other far-off lands.
I sat and watched for four and a half minutes the path it chose to take and, even after it disappeared from view behind a closer outcrop of rock, I continued to stare, as if expecting something equally spectacular to occur.
I was later to learn that it is one of the highest unclimbed peaks in the world. That knowledge soothed me and made me feel content. I was then sure that the display was, in fact, a personal gesture towards me. Why else would I have looked up at that precise moment? I was honoured that she had performed for me. Perhaps she knew that I would achieve a greater respect for her and could share her proud boast, her proud emotion, that no mortal had yet conquered her in their insignificant way.
It was one two events during my stay in the town that reaffirmed my faith in the curious spirituality of witnessing natural wonders,. Events that manipulate me into contemplating the inner workings of the mind and the world.
A few days later I spent the day walking to a nearby village, a few kilometres away. The village was walled and existed in the shadow of an 800 year old fort that rose above it. On the other side, the fort balanced on the edge of a sharp drop to the valley below. I explored the fort for hours, imagining myself as the king: fending off attacks from invading armies, running my fingers over the carefully, intricately carved columns, lintels and window frames and watching a spinning, canary sun slip lower in the sky. The tone of light it splashed across the surrounding peaks changed with every moment.
On the walk back I stopped at the local school, encouraged to play cricket with some of the scores of schoolchildren hanging about. The schoolground was caked with a deep layer of fine dust and, with the children stampeding about, the dust hung in the air and diffused the late afternoon sunlight, giving the scene a dreamlike feel.
Back at the hotel I felt tired. My pesky illness making me tire easily over the last few days. I lay in my sleeping bag in the cool, dark room and tried to sleep. I was restless. I got up and decided to walk up to a small tea-house in town, to occupy some time.
Inside, the spare, simple room was full of men watching a big-screen television at the far end. It was as though they were laying their eyes on Allah himself, so intently were they watching the screen. I found a seat, ordered tea from the proprieter and settled in to watch tv for awhile.
A few people glanced over at me but generally the focus of the room was on an Indian television game show. It was suprising when, after a rapid burst of Hindi, an English phrase would follow; "Team A has scored!" or "Good answer!". Someone with the remote control grew bored and flipped channels to a BBC World News broadcast, perhaps in subliminal deference to the foreign face.
I hadn't watched television or read a newspaper in six weeks and morbidly hoped that drastic events had occurred. Events that would shock and amaze me, making the moment significant in my life. Sadly there was only mind-numbing news about the Maastrict Treaty.
Nobody flinched when the channels changed, the same reverent stare frozen onto their faces. Electricity had arrived five years before and television, less than three. How was I to know they hadn't been there, in those positions, all that time? After the news came Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which encouraged me to finish my sugary, milky tea and get up to leave.
There were no windows in the tiny tea house and, for a moment as I stepped out into the cool air, the darkness of the night closed around me. I walked a little way and stood looking down the valley, seeing a remarkable sight. The snow on the peaks in the distance was glowing in the night. A pale, ice-blue, translucent glow that I swore was coming from within the mountains themselves. On both sides of the valley a sharp line cut across the mountains. The lower half of the valley in shadows and the upper half bathed in warm, milky light. In such moments curious thoughts spin through the brain. The thought process scans the memory banks for previous images to serve as explanations. When up against something new and previously inexperienced it throws out the closest thing that comes up.
At first I thought that the light was a remnant of the sunset, lingering about in the valley like a child too restless to go to bed, like myself. But the colour and the angles were incorrect. I then thought that there was some sort of searchlight behind me, perhaps army activity from the nearby war in Kashmir. I turned to look up behind me and saw a striking illumination flaring up from behind the ridge rising directly at my back. I couldn't understand it. Comprehension of the scene did not exist.
Looking out down the valley again I saw the line between light and dark on my side of the valley moving, like a living creature. The light creeping down into the valley at a sharper angle, uncovering each bush and rock and undulation in the terrain like a fast receding tide. The mountainside was rugged and the light from behind me left shadows on the far side of every crease in it's skin. It made the mountains look a million years older, with it's wrinkled surface appearing like the folds of an elephant's skin.
I watched the line move down towards me, and for a moment, I considered running. As though some hidden part of me would be exposed if the light reached me and pounced upon my soul. All rational thought had vanished and I stood riveted to the ground like a hare in the headlights. I foolishly felt like an inverted version of perhaps a native in a raw and untouched Africa. A man who knew only the land and the movements of the game and the sky who saw an aeroplane sweep low over the plains for the first time, not knowing what it was. There I was, from a land of machines and technology and so‑called progress, stunned at some supernatural occurrence.
A flash came from behind me and, suddenly, the line that had advanced was gone and the street was washed with light, with the sudden intensity of a nuclear explosion. I turned, startled, for I had been in a trance‑like state, and saw a dome appear over the ridge. It was alive. Growing and growing with every pulse it gave off, and my heart lifted as I realized the dear, waning moon was rising.
But it was a moon unlike any other I had seen. In the deserts and prairies of North America and Australia, where I had concentrated a lot of time, I had experienced a thousand night skies, thinking myself to be intimate with the stars and the moon. On the top of the world, however, the moon is immediate and regal with it's blinding radiance. Almost painful to look at directly.
It continued to rise and, just as it reached the top of the ridge, it paused and balanced there for a moment. As though it was considering rolling down. It was impossibly large. The only comparision I could think of at that moment was that it resembled someone raising a vibrant disc of ivory, the size of the Wimbledon winner's plate, up above their head. The markings that mapped it's craters and mountains were etched upon it's fullness with graphic clarity. It was a subtle second dawn, only a couple of hours after the sun had set.
I felt like I was party to a fantastic secret event. The others in the valley, and in other valleys and countries in high alpine worlds, would see a similar thing and have seen it before as well, but the whole path I had taken to witness it made it special and somehow spiritual. If I had missed it and continued through my life unaware of it, I think that something would have been incomplete. It contributed to some mysterious aspect of the course of my life. A vital stitch in the fabric of my coloured cloak. Without it, the cloak would fray and fall to the ground. As it rose further into the sky it slipped silently into a slightly yellow hue, like the colour of a page in an old, wise book. The Lunar Lord had grown weary at the brilliance displayed in his glorious rise and he now settled into the sky, arms folded, to keep watch over the world. The stars were faint beneath the glow, bowing to their master of the night. I thought how he must love the nights when he is full.
Words from a Cat Stevens song found their way into my head. With a sigh I walked down the road to the hotel, basking in the lunar glow casting daylight across the town. Like a prayer, softly singing "Moonshadows, Moonshadows".
Tales from an Uzbeki Train
by Mikael Colville-Andersen
I leapt up the stairs to Platform 6 like a man possessed and saw my train standing idle on the tracks, the steps pulled in and the doors closed, ready to depart. I could hear the thump of the Russian policeman's boots echoing louder and louder through the tunnel beneath the tracks. I couldn't believe that he was chasing me; all I was doing was running for a train. I thought I had clearly explained this as I roared past him trying to stop me, spouting phrases in broken Russian; "Excuse me, please! I am a tourist!, Train go! Train go! I go train!'.
The passengers were at the windows exchanging waves with their well wishers on the crumbling concrete platform despite the fact that they weren't yet moving. I banged hard on the thick green door of the first compartment I came to until my hand was numb. The face of a train attendant appeared through the dirty window above me and I waved my ticket furiously, shouting at her in English and Russian to please open the door.
Promising her dollars and pantyhose and peace on earth; although I think it must have been the desperate look on my face that convinced her to heave the door open with her shoulder. Babbling thank yous I hoisted my bag up and grabbed the handle to lift myself into the car just as the train jerked to life and started to slowly roll away from the platform.
I was barely inside the door when two other people with equally efficient time management skills began throwing their bags into the open doorway as they ran alongside the train. They both had about five bags each and in the time it was taking them to get the bags on board I was sure they would run out of either platform or breath. The wild eyed young man finally climbed on board but the woman of sixty odd years was reaching the end of her endurance.
The man and I each grabbed an arm and tried to lift her up; her feet dragging the ground blurring past beneath her. The train attendant was shouting for us to hurry; she had her hand on the emergency brake but didn't want to have to use it. When I saw the Russian police officer puffing down the platform towards me I was inspired. Straining considerably we found the strength required in one last burst. Lifting a short, round Russian grandmother wearing a heavy overcoat onto a moving train must surely rank as one of my finer achievements. She landed on the floor with a thump, the scarf that was around her head now covering her face as she laughed and gasped for breath.
I had been travelling by train all over the former Soviet Union for the past four weeks and by a twist of fate this one was the first to depart late; every other one leaving within seconds of the scheduled time. I was more than pleased. Missing this weekly train between Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Urumqui in Western China would create complications with my visa and the mountain pass I needed to cross between China and Pakistan would close for the winter with me on the wrong side of it. The bright lights of Tashkent's main station shimmered in the warmth of the autumn evening before disappearing from view as we gained speed through the suburbs. Vignettes of life flashing through the lighted doorways and windows of the low houses beside the track; families sitting down for dinner, a couple arguing, a man silhouetted in his door frame with the small orange light of a cigarette glowing where his mouth would have been.
As I wasn't in the right car I asked the relieved train attendant or provodnika as they are called, which direction my car was in. Her explanation was lost on me and while she started to talk louder, hoping an increase in decibels would suddenly make me understand, a small group of curious passengers congregated to see if they could lend a hand. Soon enough the whole crowd knew where I was from, how old I was and where I was going, and while that was all very sociable, I just wanted to get to my cabin. After some discussion one little Uzbeki man said in English, "One, two." Motioning in one direction down the train, towards the engine. "Great", I said in the honoured tradition of Monsieur Marceau, "Now would that be two cars along, or twelve, or what?" This question caused the small crowd of ten people to all start shouting "One, two"; each convinced that the other wasn't saying it right, and waving in their own special mime styles as to the location. I figured I would find it eventually so I said goodbye to my comrades in tardiness, thanked the crowd for their kind assistance and started walking towards the engine.
Through the third class compartments where there is less room for luggage, I had to step over all manner of produce from the current harvest. Every passenger had at least two or three enormous watermelons with them from the markets of the city. Most of the train was destined for Omsk in Western Siberia where such produce would be rare and expensive. I balanced against the increasing rocking of the train through the aisles of the cars and the narrow walkways in between them, and eventually found my berth. When it dawned on me that what they had all meant was that my car was one of the first two cars after the engine, I inwardly groaned.
I entered the four bed compartment and said hello to the two people who were in there. My most fluent Russian is the opening conversation with fellow passengers, for the questions were always the same. I began with a standard spiel about where I was from, where I was going, and I'm terribly sorry but I don't speak Russian or, since I was Central Asia, Uzbeki or Kazakh, very well. As I look rather young for my age, one of the first questions is always "Stoodient?" I had given up explaining that I was a writer doing an article on the Soviet rail system. I think I looked too young, despite my claims to being twenty five, for them to believe that I would be doing such a thing. So, for the sake of simplicity I became a stoodient once again.
We finally got around to names and I introduced myself to Ergash Azimov and his mother; Uzbekis from Tashkent who were on their way to Urumqui to visit a brother, although given the amount of luggage that was crammed into every available space it was clear that doing business was a primary goal. With the newly acquired freedom to travel the Uzbekis, like their central Asian counterparts, were rediscovering their roots. For two thousand years they traded along the Silk Road route between China and Europe and business was inherently natural to them.
Ergash was thirty two years old with black curly hair, a chubby face and the kind of dark moist eyes that seemed like they could watch you wherever you were in the room without needing the head to move. He was wearing a wool sweater that was a couple of sizes too small for him and that showed a slightly rounded stomach. He had the typical Turkic looks of the region and spoke a tiny bit of English to match my hopscotch Russian.
His mother was sixty two years old with a web of wrinkles across her face weathered by the sun of the semi arid region she lived in and her black hair was spiced with grey and held in a bun. She was short and stout but with a commanding matriarchal presence. Her eyes made the woman, though. They were small, dark and deep-set but they twinkled like a midnight desert sky. They constantly moved between amusement and some sort of mischievous playfulness. For most of the journey she sat with her legs curled underneath her wearing the floral polyester dress typical of Soviet grandmothers.
Once over the basics, her line of questioning moved onto a tack different than anyone else I had met on trains in the former Soviet Union. Where most people presented either a 'why on earth would you want to travel so much' attitude or asked me things with a sour envious tone, she wanted to know about all the places I had been and what I thought about them. She would name a country and I would comment on it. She preferred speaking in her native tongue rather than in Russian so Ergash translated for us. She marvelled that I was going all this way at only twenty five years old; you could feel that she was wise and oozed a real enthusiasm for life.
Once the train felt like it had chosen a speed that was appealing, it settled into the humming, clacking hypnotic pace that only trains excel at. Ergash was in the corridor looking out of the window at the landscape that was barely distinguishable in the black night that had fallen. He motioned for me to join him so that Mama, as he called her, could change.
The Soviets have made a civilized art out of train travel and it has taken me some time to master all of the intricacies. On journeys of twelve hours or more, for example, as soon as the train is underway, one is expected to change into more comfortable clothes and slippers suitable for lounging and to pack their street clothes away. Your cabin mates will all vacate in turn so that each can have privacy to change. Keeping the same clothes on can create more than one form of bad air in the cabin. Once we were all changed we made ourselves comfortable.
One of the provodniks came around with our bedding and we paid the requisite 30 rubles. It was the first time on a Soviet train that my sheets and pillowcase all matched and I was excited at the prospect of sleeping comfortably between uniform layers of blue acorns and red shamrocks. But I had to wait as Mama and Ergash had set out a makeshift supper and invited me down from my top bunk to share it with them. I carry food with me when I ride the trains but usually just snacks in-between visits to the restaurant car. This tends to be a luxury for most people and they equip themselves with copious amounts of food for the entire journey; in this case three days and four nights.
Ergash filled the tea pot with hot water from the tap at the end of the corridor and Mama scooped in tea leaves. It was like a picnic spread out on the small table and we took pieces of each item as we fancied it; roast beef, boiled chicken, boiled potatoes and a loaf of sweet Uzbeki bread baked with chunks of squash inside. Shortbread and fresh cantaloupe with bright orange flesh were for dessert. When the tea was ready Mama filled a teacup and then poured it back into the pot, repeating this process three times in an Uzbeki tradition. And during the trip my teacup would only ever be filled up halfway which was a sign that, as a guest, I was welcome. When the cup was filled to the brim I would know that I had overstayed my welcome or offended someone and 'gosh, is that the time? I really must be going.'
I stood in the corridor with my head out of the window marvelling at the blackness of the world and the intensity of the stars. It was refreshing to be on a train with windows that opened and it added a whole new dimension to the experience. Normally your only fresh air came at brief ten or fifteen minute stops or from the blast of air into the bathroom when you flushed the toilet. Now I was free to get a closer feel of the train; the smell of the diesel engine was rich and the sound of the clacking sharper and more resonant, making me gain a truer sense that I was travelling. When the train rounded a long, sweeping bend I could see from tip to tail and along it's length the lights inside splashed out and wobbled on the immediate plain in irregular patterns. In the distance, for a brief moment, a pair of headlights flashed like bright stars and bobbed up and down before disappearing from view down some dark and bumpy road. The flatness of the terrain was discernible only by how far the level of the stars went down on the horizon.
After the Azimovs had gone to sleep I sat in my bunk and caught up on my notes by the dim glow of a small wall light. It was quiet in the compartment; only deep Azimov breathing complemented the soothing percussion of the train. When the door slid open a blast of light from the corridor leapt in and a weedy looking character came in reeking of alcohol. This was our other cabin mate. He spent most of his time with 'the boys' next door in a smoke filled cabin drinking and playing cards and would use his berth only for sleep. The fact that he hadn't made his bed yet was at best irritating, but when he decided to try and engage me in a lively conversation during the process, it made me slightly temperamental. He was a short and skinny Uzbeki with a wispy moustache and an incredibly bad haircut. I'm sure he told me his name but I didn't retain it and began referring to him as Vinny: I have never known anyone called Vinny, but if I had I was sure they would have looked like him. His tiny black eyes were cold and lifeless even when one of his slimy smiles creased his face.
He was the kind of person who had convinced themselves that they can speak a foreign language, in this case English, and he rattled on at length even though it bore no resemblance to the English that I speak. And while I admit I wasn't really paying attention to him, I still only caught a handful of words; 'dollars, you like?, okay', and one annoying and oft repeated phrase, 'you are my friend' which sounded rather like 'yo ah my fen'. I kept shushing him, already protective of Mama and Ergash, and when he started to slap my thigh and laugh at something he had said in his imaginary tongue, I turned out my light and rolled over to sleep.
Ergash woke me up early for food and when I looked down at the picnic spread out once again Mama waved me down saying, as she did every meal, "Kushat, Mikael"; kushat being the Russian word for eat. She often looked at me, shook her head smiling and called me Michael Jackson; always before breaking into hearty giggles. They talked in Uzbeki during the meal about, I think, remodelling their house. I enjoyed listening to the smooth measured tempo of their words as I do with all Turkic languages.
After we had satisfied our hunger Ergash and I put the food away; wrapping each dish up in it's individual piece of plastic or wax paper. We settled back with a final cup of tea and Mama said in Russian, "Talk, Mikael" and we chatted about other countries and politics since the break-up of the Soviet Union. I loved her approach when she invited me to talk or eat, feeling in a way that I was perhaps in the presence of a great Empress who had granted me, the explorer, an audience to talk of wonderful new places I had seen but I was wary of what was next; maybe "Dance, Mikael" or "Sing, Mikael". Instead we slipped into a comfortable silence looking out the window before newspapers and books came out and I retired to my bunk to write and fell asleep.
The Asimov's opinions about the recent break-up of the USSR highlighted the fears of my friends in the Russian republic. Uzbekistan would no longer have to serve the interests of Moscow; instead, religious and cultural loyalties with their Muslim neighbours to the south that were severed in the early part of the century would be rekindled. They would turn their eyes and hearts to the south; to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey and the interests of Uzbekis would take precedence. The production of the famous cotton of the region that successive Soviet leaders had pushed to unattainable limits would be controlled and the profits would remain in the republic. Trains and trucks would be loaded up to head south instead. While travelling in the region I read of a satellite sent up by Turkey to broadcast Turkish and Egyptian programming to most of central Asia to replace the sterile Soviet channels and to educate the masses with the language and culture closer to their rich history.
It was touching the way that Ergash catered to Mama's every need, adding to my image of an Empress. Respect for one's elders is something sacred in many cultures and mothers and grandmothers in particular, strike a figure to be respected. Certainly in China you feel an automatic level of respect for the finely cut wrinkles and calm inwardly looking eyes of the old that seem to represent wisdom and subtle authority even in the most diminutive, stooped figures. In the republics of the former USSR you perhaps regard size, stern faces and calloused hands as worthy of deference in the elderly. This respect of and devotion to one's parents and grandparents is certainly a concept that is long forgotten in North America. If the RV parks of America are any indication, your level of esteem in the eyes of others is directly related to the length of your motor home or your career winnings at bingo.
I relaxed through the afternoon writing and reading and gorging myself on the most appealing fruit I know; the pomegranate. I bought a dozen in Tashkent for the trip and once into one I found it difficult to stop for a simple reason; they are damn fun to eat. Break open the red leathery rind and you find hundreds of bright red beads of juicy flesh. Shove oodles of them into your mouth to chew and suck the somewhat sour flesh away until you are left with a mouthful of seeds. Dispose of seeds and repeat process until bloated and sick. During an afternoon nap I dreamed I was one of those seeds inside a liquid capsule swallowed by an animal and taken far into the desert and deposited in their dung to grow into a mountain. Okay, actually the dream was a bitter and twisted tale of life in a Provence mansion with a harem of naked French starlets, but you get the idea.
I awoke in the afternoon to see the steppes once again, this time under a clear light blue sky. The haze of the morning had lifted, except for a ridge barely concealing the horizon, and the land was bright. I caught glimpses of the famous cotton of the region as little puffs of white on dusty plants and sped past fields of swaying grain. In the hills off to the far right which marked the border of Kirghizstan, green fields stood out bold in the almost overwhelming brownness of the scene. I decided that the only proper way to see this land would be in the spirit of all the great Silk Road adventurers; by horseback, and I marked it down on my list of things to do, however unlikely the eventuality was.
The train slowed slightly to a different pitched hum as we began to enter the outskirts of Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. According to my information we were early and I scrambled to pull out my map to ponder our position. I always kept track of the trains progress on the massive cartographical projection of the nation that filled up my entire bunk when unfolded completely, as a way to pass the time. But, as my information came from a man I met outside of the bathroom, it could hardly be considered accurate.
We were shunted around the rail yard as the train was divided up for different destinations and each segment was joined with other segments from different places in what looked to me to be one giant puzzle. My interest in trains developed late; there was no childhood fascination to speak of, indeed the first train I remember getting on was an Amtrak service between Seattle and Los Angeles when I was twenty one. Growing up on the Canadian prairies, the long low whistle of the freight trains echoing through the air of dreamy summer evenings was aesthetic and memorable but only a novelty in an automobile society. I journeyed through China and on the Trans Siberian Railway a few years before and became hooked on the romance, the atmosphere, the ability to travel and see the world float past at a reasonable rate. The dark green snakes of the Soviet system exude a charm all their own that few other railway nations can match. They possess a distinct smell and feel and the passengers, over time, have created a unique civilized air to the process.
Ergash had left to make a phone call in the station when the train started to move. We had been shuffling back and forth for almost two hours and it took a moment to realize that we were now moving out of the station and down the line. I didn't click that he wasn't on board until Mama mumbled some worried words and gave me a little shrug. I told her I would go and tell the provodnik but she had already done that and he wasn't very helpful. She was calm and holding her own but managed to let a few soft, quiet tears slip from her beautiful black eyes. She shrugged at me again and went to the bathroom to gain her composure, coming back with a little laugh.
After a short time we ended up in a rail yard to shudder and jolt through another series of shunts before moving further down the track to arrive and sit idle at another station; still within the urban sprawl of the city and with the original name; Alma Ata 2. Mama and I didn't say much to each other; we just sat on the edge of opposite bunks and waited. I envisioned myself having to unload their vast amount of luggage at the end of the line and pouring her tea as a poor substitute for her son, worried that I was forgetting the traditions. And what was she thinking? "Great, Ergash misses the train and now I'm stuck with this foreign tourist all the way to Urumqui. Nice kid, but he can barely speak Russian let alone Uzbeki. Poor thing with his smelly feet; he can't pour tea without spilling it and what if he forgets the traditions? All he does is sit up there on his bunk for hours on end, writing, or standing with his head out the window like a dog in a car."
Two and a half hours later my tea pouring discrepancies were forgotten as Ergash bounded into the compartment, out of breath, sweating and smiling wide after making his way across Alma Ata by taxi. I saw him running out of the station to hail a yellow Lada, leap in the back seat and say "Alma Ata 2, buddy, and step on it, I gotta a train to catch. The driver replying, "Whaddeva ya say, mac" spinning his Yankees baseball cap around backwards, hitting the meter, and squealing his tires as he shoots out into traffic. Swerving around corners with Ergash perched urgently on the edge of the back seat until they screeched to a halt at the station. Ergash chucking him a fiver and sprinting to catch the train. Needless to say, long train journeys jumpstart even the most vacant imaginations.
Moving once again we ended up at the main platform of the station and took on passengers into the empty cars that had been added for the trip across the border into China. The air of expectancy and excitement at the prospect of travel that normally exists around Soviet train stations was intensified here, possibly because the next step was an international border crossing; a rare experience for former Soviets. Announcements were made in three languages over nasal crackling loudspeakers in the twilight; the voices carrying on a cool wind slipping down from the Tian Shan range in nearby Kirghizstan. Hearing Kazakh and Russian was not unusual but I was surprised to hear them followed by English. It had been almost a month since I had heard a full English sentence and it startled me, just before it amused me.
"Attention please. Be careful! Passengers for the International Express from Alma Ata from Urumqui kindly requested to assembled for the train on Foyer 1. Good luck to you! Good luck to you!"
And since I was the only foreigner on that train and no doubt in that station it felt like the announcement was personally directed to me the lonely voyager in a strange land; like the Vikings discovering America and finding a sign strung between two trees in Newfoundland that read "Welcome Mr. Eriksen!"
In the fluorescent light, rows of old women bundled in overcoats each stood in front of their own crate of fresh apples for sale, lending credence to a city with a name meaning Father of Apples. A few of the people from our car loaded up with the fruit to complement their supply of produce. We had been in Alma Ata for close to seven hours when I again felt the first familiar yank of the train. Night had fallen and, consistent with every other city I set out from on a Soviet train, we rolled away in the dark.
My sleep that night was typical of every sleep and every nap whenever I travel on trains anywhere in the world. My mind finds the rhythm of train travel sufficiently pleasing to weave the most fantastic fabric of dreams and always only moments after I slip away. Never, in any other situation I have experienced have my dreams been so vivid and clear and exotic. It is crazy that I can travel through amazing lands that leap out of my imagination and then I sleep and visit places and times of far more unbelievable richness and diversity. Colours sharper than those visible to any human eye. Details fine and precise. Quite often on train trips I look forward to putting my head down and wandering into a wonderful world.
In the earliest dawn moments I saw that the land had flattened out and was dotted with low, ash coloured scrub that looked like it would crumble to dust if I touched it. It drifted into desert in places; the sand caked and dry and then loose and wrinkled. Often behind a bush there was a tail of rippled sand that indicated in which direction the strong winds blew last. The whole way on the route two lines, either power or telephone, paced the train parallel to us like outriders to a lonely wagon train.
Perhaps they breathe civilization into the tiny settlements that occasionally appear out of the window and provide homes for the herdsmen who can be seen sitting solitary on their horses watching the train on the outskirts of a wandering herd of sheep. In one instance, on a road invisible to me from the train, I saw a black car speeding along and shining in the sun. It looked fantastically out of place like a creature from another time. I thought of the famous red sports car that sticks out like a sore thumb in that one scene in Ben Hur.
Mama remembered an English phrase from somewhere in her past and it was a toy to her. "Michael Jackson, I love you!" she would squeal before her body shook with regal giggles. At one meal I introduced a fine delicacy from home that I had in the bottom of my pack. I explained at length that it was beef and tomato soup and it was quite good. Mama took the small white packet of instant soup from my hand when I opened it. She looked inside at the dubious orange powder and after giving me a look, licked and dipped her finger and raised it to her mouth. I tried to stop her but she was determined and she sucked the powder off her finger. I think she almost threw up. She didn't want to be too obvious but her face quivered between trying to keep a polite composure and complete and utter repulsion. It squeezed up into a complicated map of wrinkles and looked like that of someone with a sour mouthful of lemon who had simultaneously downed a glass of scotch. The look remained locked on her face until she ate a mouthful of bread.
Ergash wasn't looking too confident at the prospect of having some after Mama's reaction but he knew he had to. She was intently watching his darkened face as he dipped a piece of bread into the soup now properly prepared with hot water and with a surprised and relieved look declared it okay. Mama didn't believe him and asked him in Uzbeki something akin to, "Are you serious? You're not being polite? You like it?" It took a lot of persuasion to get her to try it and even then she only took a tiny dip with some bread, expecting the worst. After that she wouldn't touch the stuff.
I tried to track our movements with geographical clues along the way but after Alma Ata it became difficult. The thin black line that led into China did so through the foothills of the Tian Shan range and with my crude computations I figured that we should have been there already. Out of the window the desert stretched on and on and gave no clues. Ergash had a history of giving definite, confident answers but he was always wrong. I trudged down to the provodniks office but after much discussion they couldn't find us on the map either which was only slightly worrying. It would became a guessing game which was both interesting and irritating for a guy who doesn't usually care where he is as long as he knows exactly where he is. For the first two days I studied the landscape looking for the slightest hint of an incline or any potential change to the landscape without any luck at all.
That morning after the cup-a-soup taste challenge I fell asleep again at 0930 only to wake up two hours later to spy a vast lake to the left. Murphy's law strikes hard even in the nether regions of the world. A whippy wind was stirring up the surface into white flecks of foam and the shore was guarded by the twisted shapes of wind formed trees. A small, dusty settlement looking deserted lay on the near shore. The far shore was pure speculation. It was a brilliant blast of colour to my eyes and the window filled up with the yellow grassland in the foreground, the steely blue water of the lake and the palest blue sky above. Around the lake a hundred metre strip of grass was a finer shade of gold and gave off a halo effect.
I climbed down from my bunk with the recently acquired dexterity of a mountain goat and into my shoes on the floor. From the corridor window I saw mountains in the distance thrusting up without the bothersome formality of foothills save a few knobbly lumps at their feet. They were snow covered and were all the more awesome because of their sudden appearance. The ground had gained some solidity and now consisted of a thin layer of grey pebbles in patches between the scrub; leftover from the glacial age. Referring to my map I couldn't find any lakes where we should have been but since I had confirmed with the provodniks that yes, we were going to Urumqui I just left it alone.
A tiny blob of houses appeared as I was looking out of the window with the cold air reddening my face and making my nose run. It sat on a small hill that made the doorways level with the window of the train. Even in this vast wide open expanse the citizens still cordon off a garden area with rickety fences that betray their nomadic roots.
Sitting against a fence nearest the track was a small boy of perhaps twelve years of age with a fine looking dog sitting erect between his legs. He was wearing a blue woollen hat and quilted red jacket and both he and the dog were watching the train with interest. It was an event, this weekly passing of the train, and he was there watching every moment of it. As I passed him I waved from the freedom of the open window; it was a spontaneous gesture. He saw my hand suddenly and his face lit up in an impossible smile as he shot up his arm enthusiastically in response; holding it there with palm outstretched, as did I, until we both were out of sight. That simple wave and the shared smile remains one of my fondest, enduring snapshots of all my travels. In that exchange between two people in the world who could not be more different there was an overwhelming feeling of hope and confidence that everything in the world would be okay. I can still see his face like I have known him all my life and the mere recollection of the event moves me like few things do. I will always wonder if he will also remember the moment as he follows the course of his life in that faraway place.
A high chain link fence swept across the plains from the north and looked imposing as it seemed to intercept the train and run alongside it. Every few kilometres a watchtower rose metallic and bright in the sun; in each one stood a figure barely discernible though the glass. This was obviously the border and it was heartening to see that the ever vigilant Chinese enlisted men to protect their land from the wind and a few wild horses, for with the fall of the Soviet Union, that was all that was left out there.
From the spare earth on the edge of a lost empire sprang the Soviet railhead of Druhzba. With that name as a reference I finally found where on earth, literally, I was and saw that it was a good three inches to the north from where I was looking. Our one lonely track branched out into scores all laid out parallel and hosting a large variety of boxcars and flat cars. A weary looking army official came aboard and took our passports. We spent the next few hours having the train transferred to the Chinese gauge. Hydraulic jacks groaned as they lifted three cars at a time into the air to have the wheels rolled out and replaced with others. This was interesting to many of the passengers and I and we hung out of the windows in the bright sun and cold air watching the proceedings.
In the compartment Mama and Ergash spoke in Uzbeki and kept nodding in my direction. Like a cat who knows an earthquake is approaching, I sensed something was up. Ergash asked to see my Russian-English phrasebook and looked up a couple of words before forming his thoughts into sentences. So. They wanted me to take a big box of 'plastic souvenirs' across the border for them. They had so many boxes of every size and shape that I didn't see why one box should make a difference. They had been so kind to let me share their food and we had become friends but this was a compromising position for me. I knew I would say no but I wondered how they would take it. Was I obliged to do it? Was there some grey area in their traditions that I would upset? I politely explained that my first rule of travel is not to carry things over borders for other people and I could not do it for them. In a word, "nyet". Ergash repeated this in a high pitched voice, "Nyet? Okay." He chucked my phrase book across the tiny compartment onto his bed in disgust. Mama watched it all with her amused face on; the wrinkles around her eyes deeper and darker than normal.
An uneasy silence hung like fog over our heads so I scaled higher into it and up onto my bunk. I felt bad but that was that. They talked in Uzbeki and my imagination felt like it wanted to translate for me. "Boy, would you look at that. We gave him all that food and showed an interest in him and he can't even take a dinky box over the border". I thought for sure I would be wandering down to the restaurant to eat for the duration but in an hour or so I heard the familiar "kushat Mikael" and I descended to eat. As the tea was being prepared I feared the worst possible thing would happen; my teacup would be filled to the brim. I tried not to watch as Mama poured the tea but to my relief the level of the brown liquid stopped at halfway.
Darkness had fallen; the sun spinning to earth at the tail end of the train and leaving a soft yellow glow over the scene for almost an hour. The time came for the parade of officials that signals the commencement of border formalities. When I had travelled by train in and out of the Soviet Union three years before I was impressed and a bit alarmed at the rigid humourless border soldiers and their crisp efficiency serving the forces of a then feared nation.
Wearing a lovely emerald silk dress, an Asian lady waltzed in and sat down on the bunk offering polite salutations with the sunny disposition of a vacuum cleaner salesperson. "Hi, my name is Susan and I'd just like to take a moment of your time to introduce our top of the line Aral Sea model. Sucks up water quicker than you can redirect a river."
Her job was to collect stamped bits of paper that proved you had been to a doctor and received AIDS information. I didn't have one but assured her that living in England I had received the necessary information. After a few moments of resistance she sighed and left. Following her was a nifty chap wearing an argyle sweater and pressed trousers to collect foreign currency forms and he was tagged along by an attractive blonde in a dark green winter coat that matched admirably with her white silk blouse and pleated slacks. Her colourful, carefully trowelled on makeup gave her face a rainbow appearance and she wanted money for some declaration fee. These are the border guards of the new Commonwealth, dressing casual and walking with a groovy swing in their hips. No longer invoking fear; more like visions of a good game of bridge. I had the distinct feeling that they were all heading out to the local Frontier Town Restaurant and Nightclub as soon as they knocked off work.
Our whole car had the feel of a small town in the American Midwest. The provodniks were the combination sheriff/sanitation department patrolling and cleaning up after the populace. The mayor was surely the loveable, bumbling, roly poly passenger who was everywhere at once like it was his undying desire to make sure everything ran smoothly. In a typical act he collected everyone's passports, hoping to speed things up for the officials but was chastised severely. He had a bushy moustache, wore a fur hat of the typical Russian design and a sweater that barely covered his considerable gut.
The rough side of town was in the compartment next to us where Vinny disappeared to. At all hours there seemed to be a card game or a chess match in progress and empty bottles of beer and vodka littered the table and the floor. The air was thick with smoke and I was always invited in to play chess and always beaten soundly. Downing glasses full of spirits certainly didn't assist my concentration.
The rest of the town lived in the farther compartments near the provodniks office. Whenever any of them walked past; child, man or woman, they always took surreptitious glances into our compartment. I was like the exchange student in town and my movements through the car were watched and speculated on. Through the bush telegraph system typical of small communities everyone knew where I was from and my age even though I had only told a couple of people. My little pink Russian notebook in which I constantly wrote was a source of fascination to them. All except Mama who asked me as the train lay idle "What are you writing now?" I told her, "Words; many, many words", only to have her reply with a hint of annoyance and gesture to the scene outside the window, "What words? Nothing is happening!"
We moved in the dark from one puddle of bright light to another, twelve kilometres down the track; at some point in the inky night passing into China. There rose a brand new railhead and behind the smart, painted buildings you thought you would still find the packing crates. Patriotic slogans on cloth banners lined the fences on our approach to the well constructed platform. Here it was evident who thought rather highly of themselves as a superpower. The officials who came onto the train looked like they should star in a 1930's Nazi propaganda film. One should assume that wearing long overcoats with fur lined collars draped cockily over the shoulders, the hat jauntily sitting to one side on the head, jackboots crunching along the ground with arrogance and, of course, the cigarette held in the fingers with the palm facing upwards are the pillar of fashion in town.
Extreme attitude aside, the formalities on the Chinese side passed smoothly. Mama astounded both me and the border guards when she started speaking fluent Mandarin to them. Each one who came in did a double take and sat down for a chat in a sociable manner unbecoming of the Chinese soldier. In the corridor scores of people in uniform flowed past shouting at each other and trying to look important. What all their job descriptions were was beyond me; perhaps it was all just a show of force. Outside the train, under the floodlights, we were surrounded by soldiers spaced about ten metres apart and armed with shiny black machine guns; presumably guarding against that likely eventuality that someone may try to escape into China. After the casual display on the Soviet side, all the pomp and circumstance of the Chinese was laughable. Perhaps witnessing firsthand the decline that has hunted down every powerful nation and society in history makes one sceptical about the future of a nation that still pretends.
Once we were ready to get underway an announcement blared over the public address system in Mandarin and Russian. The tension that hung in the air like the smoke of a rancid Chinese cigarette had faded and the passengers were in high spirits; I think everyone had felt the same way about all the nonsense. For some reason the female announcer's Russian pronunciation of goodbye caused almost everyone in the car, and no doubt the train, to explode into fits of laughter. Down the car people repeated it in unflattering imitations and that set everyone off again; hooting wildly. It was the most impressive bout of public laughter I have enjoyed. The loudspeakers were turned up high to blare twanging Chinese patriotic songs that filled the cold air as the train pulled away from the station and soon we were in the black once again.
China lay awake outside the window when I cracked open my eyes and squinted out into the bright morning. Although the land was of the same description as on the Russian side, here it was developed and farmed. Ice had formed in the night over the water in the cemented irrigation canals running under the train at frequent intervals to feed the fields that stretched away to the distant mountains. Wheat was fastened into what I would call old fashioned bushels; the kind shaped like an hourglass and not the swiss roll shape familiar to me. Some corn stood in strips still waiting to be harvested; in the stubbled areas, shepherds grazed their motley flocks of sheep. Mud huts without roofs dotted the fields, deserted by the farmers who inhabit them in the summer.
We began to roll into the outskirts of Urumqui. Twenty years before the region was deserted and virtually unknown. But a constantly growing China needs space and now a city of close to one million people stands stinking and unwelcome on the landscape; the populace arriving in droves after the railroad was extended west from Beijing. It is a place of little charm and the recent addition of a Holiday Inn will ensure it maintains that lack of appeal. The train moved into the hills around Urumqui and cut through crowded villages that had an almost shantytown appearance. Shepherds struck impressive silhouettes standing on top of some of the brown, bald hills. The people on the side of the road were mostly the indigenous Uighurs who are very similar to the Uzbekis in history and culture. It felt like we may have been on a train through Sicily with the sparse dusty landscape and the Southern European appearance of the locals.
We stole glimpses at the concrete high rises of the city between the rounded peaks and soon we ground to a halt at the station. I asked Mama and Ergash what they were going to do and they mentioned a taxi. Ergash and I carried most of their luggage through the station in spurts as there was an incredible amount to carry. Taxis were lined up waiting for customers and many drivers approached us as we came out of the station, but Mama said no to every one. We came to rest in the middle of the concrete square that spread out in front of the station on a hill overlooking the city. I couldn't figure out why they didn't want to get a taxi and they weren't offering any clues. Their things were piled into a tidy mound and we just sort of stood there for a moment. Gradually people started to gather around the curious pile of goods and began asking questions, presumably about the contents of the boxes. Mama began to play the game that has been played along the Silk Road for thousands of years and started to casually present her wares and subtly began to mention prices.
Slowly, the bartering began and the people rose to Mama's challenge. Ergash stood by her side and, as she directed, he began to unpack other goods and soon people passed around boots, spoons, sweaters, and hairbrushes; discussing their quality and value. The circle grew larger and soon I was squeezed out by the pressing crowd curious to look at the Soviet goods. I watched the scene for a while before trying to catch their eye to wave goodbye, but the Asimovs were the hub in the centre of their own burgeoning open market; moving both into the future and into their past with one purposeful leap. I caught a last glimpse of Mama; her face was wrinkled happily, her eyes glimmering and in her leathery fist she held a growing wad of money. I walked away across the square and down the steps towards the heart of the city.
Beautiful Time Road We
The October rain fluttered to the ground in it's purgatory role between the warmth of summer and the depth of the winter snow. The platform lights of Kazanskaya Station quivered and were blurred through the windows; their puddles of faint smiling light mingling with the miserable black puddles of water.
From this station the tracks head east from Moscow towards Soviet Asia and Siberia, and in the faces of the waiting passengers in the concourse, a score of races were represented. Most people were wearing winter clothes already; thick padded coats and fur hats. The cavernous station was warm with the sweet, pungent odour of a sweating mass of humanity. The crowds lounged on every available foot of floor space with their belongings.
A group of boisterous men, not entirely steady on their feet, crowded a bar in one corner, bottles of vodka emptying quickly before them. Families from the Arctic east, with red cherubic faces, ate meals beneath the echoing drone of the public address system that solemnly announced departing trains. Using their bags as chairs and tables and looking so settled into their space that you wondered if they should be paying rent. Moscow can be an expensive and unwelcoming place to citizens from other parts of the USSR and train stations are used in every capacity.
I found the 23:10 train to Tashkent listed on the board and walked out into the drizzle to find the platform. The station was built in the grand style of traditional European train stations but had been left to slowly fray at the edges over time. The concrete floors and the platforms were chipped and rough and the heavy wooden doors had tired of their swinging chores. Viewed from outside, the stone building stood sad and exhausted in the miserable rain and the pale artificial light of the night gave it a sickly yellow hue.
I boarded the long, green train in a melancholy mood to match the weather and the sad, half-closed eyes of the provodnik, the Russian title for train attendant, who stood at the door checking tickets. For two weeks I had been travelling through Russia and some of the republics in third and second class, researching an article on the Soviet rail system. On this long haul to Tashkent; over 50 hours, I splashed out and paid for a first class berth. It was a wild and reckless thing to do but I was sure that the four pound sterling it cost would be worth it.
The main difference I was paying for was the privilege of sharing my compartment with only one other passenger instead of three. Vladimir was perched attentively on the edge of his berth as I settled in and introduced myself. He actually looked excited as he sat waiting for the train to leave. With childlike anticipation he was wide-eyed at the long journey ahead.
He was a short, wiry fellow with hair the colour of grain, tinged with grey. He was a forty five year old `engineer'; a rather generic occupation in the Soviet Union. I had met scores of people who introduced themselves the same way. His posture was proper and acute; he sat straight backed with knees together as we waited for the train to move.
Just the way his things were already neatly put away; toiletries carefully arranged on the tiny shelf above him, a pair of slippers sitting expectantly at a right angle to the bottom of the bunk, revealed his somewhat fastidious nature. In these idiosyncrasies he was different from most Russian men I had met on Soviet trains.
I relayed information about myself typical to opening conversations on trains. Age, nationality, occupation. I was always an unexpected cabinmate; few tourists travel the local trains throughout the country and the people I met I found to be refreshing and sincere, qualities rare in Moscow and Leningrad. Indeed, I was the first foreigner that Vladimir had ever met and he thought highly of the moment. Such instances are daunting. I feel overwhelmed that, not only do I represent my countrymen, but the entire free world as well.
He didn't speak English at all and my Russian was, at best, rusty, but we cleared the inaugural exchange of words without confusion. The train finally leapt into motion with a few telltale yanks as the engines urged the rest of the cars to fall smartly into line. Slowly at first, but with increasing speed, we pulled away from the station and into the suburbs of Moscow. Vladimir and I watched the lights of the city blink past, diffused by the rain on the glass.
One of the provodniks, there are two to every car, came around to complete a couple of formalities. He was short and stumpy, his narrow Asian eyes virtually non-existent in his chubby face. His cap sat far back on his head and to one side. He snatched our tickets with short fat fingers and we paid him the requisite fee for our bed linen; sheets and pillow case. Once that was completed, we had cleared the limits of the city and the window had gone completely black. In the wet night, light found it a difficult path into our window, the clouds low and oppressive over the land.
It was gone midnight and, after changing into more leisurely clothes as is the custom on Soviet trains, we said goodnight and went to sleep. The soothing rocking of the train like a lullaby to me, as always. I rarely sleep as good as I do on a train.
The morning came and presented itself as dull and grey as the day before. Farms were flowing past and few colours were represented on the landscape. The plowed fields dominant with their rich black colour in the rain. Lonely looking women carrying baskets appeared frequently, often stopping to watch the train. Despite the rural surroundings, every level crossing had cars, invariably white, red or beige Ladas, lined up ten deep, waiting for the train to pass.
Vladimir was already up and looking out of the window, wearing his dark blue polyester track suit, two red stripes extending down the side. He looked fit and energetic.
He gave me a friendly smile and a enthusiastic nod as I sat up on my bunk. His thick quilt and sheets were neatly folded and put away for the day. I found this a trifle annoying in my grumpy early morning state and left mine where they lay.
He was waiting for me to get up so he could lay out breakfast and as I sat there groggy, he proceeded to unwrap various food from their individual pieces of wax paper. He gestured for me to help myself and we sat quietly eating staple Russian food; bread, cheese, salami and cucumber. As per usual on a Soviet train, a samovar is provided for tea and I fetched the water and tea leaves from the end of the corridor.
It was quiet as we ate and we both seemed to enjoy slowly eating and sipping our tea, glancing out of the window as we chewed. In our comfortable silence I felt like one half of an elderly married couple. When we finished we wrapped up the food and put it away before settling back in our bunks to chat.
He was an interesting person with intelligent observations and a thirst to learn things about my world. Like many of the people that I met he marvelled at the opportunities I had to travel. This always makes me feel guilty, knowing that there are dreamers and adventurers in such places, without an outlet for their desires. His father, he told me, had been in the Navy before the Bolsheviks came to power and had travelled extensively. He expressed bitterness at having lost that privilege under the Communists. He served in the army in Czechoslovakia and East Germany but pined for Paris, London and Cape Town.
He spoke proudly of his family's rich history in the area around Rostov on Don and in Northern Causcasia. He sat up straighter than ever and thumped his chest firmly with his fist as he said, "I am a Cossack". He hardly resembled my pre‑conceived perceptions of Cossacks as huge and fierce bearded men in black shiny boots armed with vicious swords, but he said it with enough conviction to expel any doubts.
Vladimir spoke very fast and it was difficult to understand him at times with my mediocre Russian. I dug out my Russian‑English dictionary and it became dog-eared on that section of my trip. As we tangled ourselves up in passionate conversations, one of us would grab the book and search hurriedly for the word or words that escaped us. Sometimes, when you were trying to make a point, the delay was annoying but we managed. The cabin also developed into a world class stage for the finest quality charades, our arms working extra hours to produce gestures that would make an Italian weep with joy.
We moved smoothly from subject to subject, eager to learn each others opinions. My youth, growing up on the Canadian Prairies, was dragged out of the closet when we moved onto a fine subject. The Art of Ice Hockey. We would exhaust hours on the topic, looking and acting like kids who should be trading hockey cards. We discussed the specifics of the historic 1972 Canada‑Russia hockey series with fond recollections. Although I was only four years old at the time, the highlights were shown over and over on TV as I grew up. I told him how Paul Henderson's goal is revered by the people of the nation.
He nodded thoughtfully as he said, "Yes, it was a good goal. Good for Canada and good for hockey."
We spent hours talking about the very recent breakup of the Soviet Union, a subject of particular passion to Vladimir. He was consistent with the views of almost every Russian I knew; they wished for a return of the old system. At least people had food and jobs and I could afford to care for my family, he told me. People could live a life of dignity and the children could be guaranteed a decent education and health care.
He wanted to know specifics of how much things cost in England, where I lived, and he gave me comparisons of prices in the Soviet Union. Both pre‑dissolution and current. He thought that the breakup would be good for the republics, fueled by their nationalism, but bad for Russia.
In both my notebook and the dictionary, the last pages are filled with scribbles from our conversations. Numbers litter every bit of space and relate to all manner of things; prices of beef and bread, apartments, cars and watches, dates of certain events and sketches of ice rinks, maps, boats, and a pig. I have forgotten what most of them relate to, in particular the pig, but I think back on the conversations fondly.
Literature was a popular subject as well. With a suspicious tone Vladimir asked if I liked any of the great Russian authors. It was like I was being given the ultimate test in his eyes. Fortunately I passed and we took Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyesky and the lads through the paces. He commented sadly how, despite the rich literary history, the most popular genre in the country today is the spy thriller; translations of Robert Ludlum, Arthur Hailey, and Alistair Maclean among the most read.
After lunch in the early afternoon, I napped soundly for an hour, hoping for a change in the weather when I woke up. The entire nation had been a mass of angry cloud and rain except for one warm sunny afternoon on the Crimean Peninsula that I spent visiting Chekhov's dacha. When I lifted my head to look out of the window, however, the scenery remained unchanged.
In places the landscape would vomit up drab, grey factories with their surrounding settlements but then slip back into water logged farmland. But I could tell that we were gradually drifting away from the populated western regions of the country, as paved roads became fewer, replaced by muddy tracks. The farmhouses became smaller and simpler. There was no horizon to speak of, the world just faded away after a couple of kilometres. Hills or mountains were a forgotten concept. It was like looking at a sixty year old black and white film, there were few foreign or modern influences there, in the dark heart of Russia.
When we stopped at Samara on that second day, Vladimir and I getting out to stretch our legs and breathe some fresh air. There was chocolate, milk and bread for sale. Large, squat women wearing scarves on their heads were lined up down the platform with their little baskets of whatever in their arms or sitting in front of them. Their faces were hard and rough but often smiles of golden teeth would slice off the years and the hardship.
There was little produce on offer. In the southern republics, the harvest was in and the markets were bursting with fruit and vegetables, but those valuable commodities grew more scarce the farther north you ventured in the country. From one woman I bought boiled potatos garnished with a bit of butter and chives. It was wrapped in a cone of paper that looked like pages ripped out of a child's schoolbook.
The stops we made rarely lasted longer than five or ten minutes except at the larger towns, and then only twice that. While train travel is intoxicating to me, I felt like a prisoner making the most of my limited time in the exercise yard. Vladimir would swing his arms around and around to stimulate circulation and I would walk briskly down the platform and back, looking at the wares on display and taking deep breaths of air.
Back on the train and heading east once again, about the time the sunset would take place in lands that knew the sky, a couple of rips of faint pink appeared in the clouds and hovered above the horizon. The sun had battered a crack in the ceiling and crept through with a reminder of better weather.
That afternoon I lay on my bunk, watching drowsily the failing light passing through various filters, a forest of pine, a thin stand of poplar, varying thickness of clouds, all flashing onto the walls of the compartment. Vladimir was dozing, curled up and looking very small. It was funny to think that our few lungfuls of fresh air had made us tired. I lay completely still, feeling the quiet kahchung, kahchung, kahchung of the wheels on the track vibrate into my body and make it a part of the train. The only physical movement I could detect was our coats on the hooks swaying in harmony like irregular pendulums. It was a form of meditation that I had discovered at that moment and I gently fell into a sensual sleep.
At dinner I placed a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka on the table and we toasted each other three times through the meal. That sounds sociable enough until you consider the standard Russian toast involves downing a glass half full of the spirit, roughly three ounces worth. Three of those were enough to glaze over Vladimir's eyes and rough up some colour in his cheeks and nose, but for me it was like leaning out of the train and banging my head on a passing telephone pole.
The scribbles in my notebook are untidy and almost illegible but I brought to life some interesting reflections that only an intravenous injection of vodka could have procured.
My last image of the day came to me just before midnight. I had been writing my notes for three hours and was almost ready to turn in. The Stolichnaya was still active in my system and was hanging from my eyelids. In through the black window, which hung on the wall like a television screen turned off for the night, came a striking image. The train was passing next to a natural gas refinery and, from the mouth of three high, narrow stacks, bright orange flame spewed into the hungry night air. They were followed by twenty six more all looking rather alien and spooky. The flames were blowing horizontal in the same direction of the train, evil orange tongues licking furiously, feeding on the powerful wind. Through the window I could hear their low throaty roar and sharp snapping as the bright tails broke off and vanished. The direction in which they were blowing was disorientating. It felt like they should be blowing towards the end of the train as we sped past but the wind was strong and they went with us, and I felt for a moment that we were going backwards.
It all had the feel of a Star Trek movie set and I half expected to see the shimmering forms of Kirk and Spock beaming into the foreground. Whether that was my imagination or the work of quality vodka I'll never know, but as the pillars of fire slipped past, I curled up to sleep.
A curious sensation early in the morning came to me as though in a dream. There was a bright lemony light filling the room and moving from right to left across the walls, before slowly moving out again as the train negotiated some curves in the tracks. I thought we were zipping through a brightly lit, nameless railway junction in the night but my body clock informed me otherwise. It was the same slow realization that every Englishman has on the first morning of his holiday in Spain or Greece or basically anywhere outside England or Western Russia in October. It was the sun. The golden orb. The magnificent mother of life. And someone had turned it on.
I could have been seven years old again. Having convinced myself, at that age of reason, that Mum and Dad had been fooling me with those tales of Santa Claus, I would comb the house in the weeks prior to Christmas, making myself aware of every gift coming my way. Nothing escaped my reconnaissance. Then on The Big Day there appeared a fantastic gift with the tag, From Santa. It stopped my reasoning process and stunted it for several years to come. It was like that with the sun. I had stopped believing in it.
The pulsing ball of yellow light glowed wonderfully under a pale blue sky painted with yawning feathery clouds. The sky stretched to the far, far horizon. Beneath it, the earth was covered with waxy golden grass that floated lazily in waves as it was caressed by a persistent wind. At that exact moment there weren't any buildings, any human settlement as far as the eye could see, on either side of the train. Just the lonely string of a telephone line racing along with us to amuse itself.
It was a scene to fill the heart of a prairie boy with joy. I had been intimate with such a sky in the hazy days of my youth in the vast spare land of western Canada. Few types of geography thrilled me more. On the great plains I felt raw and exposed under the big sky. I could hide no secrets, I could tell no lies. I was the largest thing on the landscape and yet I was the smallest thing in the world.
The fantastic knowledge that the land continued on like that for a thousand miles was soothing to me. It didn't make me melancholy with thoughts of home ‑ I hadn't lived there for years‑ it made me happy that such a place existed elsewhere in the world. It was like finding remnants of a civilization on the opposite end of the planet from where you expected it to be. I was content that these plains were here and I felt some sort of kinship with the locals who inhabited them. It didn't matter that they may be completely different from me in every way. They knew the sky.
The train rolled on across the land. On occasion, stubby penis shaped buildings, topped with a nipple, would pop up beside the track. They were round and made of concrete and I assumed they had to do with the telephone lines. For a moment in the distance - it was impossible to tell how far - the windscreen of a vehicle flashed brightly in the sun. There was no plume of dust tagging along, so it was either on a paved road or stationary. That was the only hint of modern society that could be seen, apart from the odd streak of white across the sky from a passing jet. From up there the land must look brown and barren and lifeless and I smiled as though I possessed a marvelous secret that they, up there, would never know.
A herd of twenty four horses galloped across the flat terrain. I imagined the thundering noise they would make and cursed the windows of the train for being sealed. There were no fences as such so they ran as wild as they should. I saw the sun reflecting off of their shiny flowing manes and sweating flesh as they ran with the train for a spell.
The only agriculture, apart from some tilled fields, was a field of corn, now and then. Surely only corn could survive out there, the way it talks to itself, rustling and gossiping. Most other crops would die of loneliness within a season.
We crossed a steely river, which was not deep or fast, but by the size and length of the bridge you could gauge it's seasonal potential. In the middle distance a thin blue strip betrayed the presence of a lake whose banks were populated by a few cattle and a stone hut. There were a couple of other attempts at riverhood, but even through thousands of years they had only cut a few feet into the earth with their intermittent flowing.
Two conical peaks rose over a low ridge far off to the right of the train. Vladimir had revealed a shy knowledge of schoolboy French which helped our conversations. Upon seeing the tired hills, hills that could only dominate a land as horizontal as that, he remarked with confidence that betrayed his faulty grammar: "Les Malade Montagnes." The Sick Mountains. To me they were formed in the shape of a woman with firm buoyant breasts floating on the surface of a still lake. Boy, it's been a long train ride, I thought. And 23 hours to go. Is that Sophia Loren's pubic mound? No, it's a tractor.
In the middle of nowhere, trucks were placed by the side of the tracks, for the sole purpose of baffling me, I was sure. If they were there for a reason I couldn't figure out what it was. A couple of men would be lounging around them looking as useful as ice cream vendors in a snowstorm. Even more baffling, I would see one or two men with no visible sign of transport working on one of the many snow fences or perched up a telephone pole. Tiny figures on the landscape.
The whole flavour of the train was Uzbeki. The provodniks were Uzbeki and the food from the restaurant car was traditional rice and meat dishes. The carpets were woven in Turkish designs and the writing on the outside of the train was in Turkish script.
Some twelve hours out of Moscow the provodniks put in a cassette that piped music into the compartments from a small speaker above the door. There was a knob to adjust the volume but the sound could never be turned completely off. That cassette was the only one they possessed and it played continuously, all day save eight hours at night.
It was Uzbeki and the twangs of string instruments and the quivering vibrato voices of the singers scaling up and down was distinctly Middle Eastern. The singers sounded like muezzins calling the faithful to prayer from the minarets of Islam.
When the day dawned over the vast Kazakh plains, the music seemed to fall into place and act as a soundtrack for the scenes outside the window. Like a silent movie it gave atmosphere to the landscape and the wild horses galloped to it's rhythms. After sixteen hours a day I recognized each song and knew which one would follow. I particularly looked forward to the fourth song on the second side. It was the black sheep of the family. Crooning to me, and me alone, on the West Kazakh Railway was Bobby Vinton, singing that unforgettable hit, fun for the whole family, "Obla di Obla da, life goes on boy, Na na na na life goes on."
Of all the western musical influences creeping into the Soviet Union, it was Bobby Vinton who had found his way onto an obscure cassette on my train. It was a fantastic joke to me and every time the opening bars began I would perk up and feel good, not unlike Pavlov's dog and his bell. The song carried a mystical relevance and significance detected only by the imagination of the individual traveller. For all time I will feel a kinship with the fabulous Bobby.
Vladimir and I hardly glanced out of the window until that second day and then were quite inseparable from it. There seemed to be far more to see in an empty land. We sat quietly watching, occasionally pointing out things of interest but generally losing ourselves in out own thoughts.
There were people sitting in the corridors and in the spaces between the cars who would board at one of the tiny settlements along the way for a short hitch hike to the next village to sell their bags of vegetables. The people of the region looking distinctly Asian now as we moved farther into Kazakstan.
We had a brief spell of air at Celkar and I moved along the platform looking at the food for sale. Potatoes, bread, fish and little crayfish type crustaceans caught in the Aral Sea a few hundred miles to the southwest. The people of the town all seemed to be old, their faces carved into fine lines by the wind and sun.
Among the dull earthy tones of the local's clothes, two Russian women from the train stood out on the platform. They were both peroxide blondes, in dire need of another session, and wore pink and baby blue polyester housecoats to match their bedroom slippers. They were a surreal addition to the scene and added an unlikely splash of colour. It was chilly in the late afternoon and while the locals were bundled up sensibly the two women walked around as casually as they would in their own living rooms.
Camels began appearing on the landscape in the latter half of the day. They were rarely in motion, standing idle on the plains and looking like the plastic animals I positioned around the living room when I was little. Many had blankets with two holes cut to go over the humps, perhaps for identification. If one owned a camel, I wondered, how would one find it if one wanted to? There were few fences and most of the time hardly any sign of habitation for miles and miles.
There were increasing patches of sand on the plains, as the land slipped vaguely, quietly, into desert. It was somehow comforting to know that at the end of the desert the Tian Shan range roared up out of the earth. The land was silent but I could sense that it was itching to rise to meet the mountains even there, a thousand miles away.
The sun was falling to earth and changing the colours in the sky as it did so. The train obliged us by heading south and Vladimir and I stood in the corridor facing west to watch the spectacle. It was a satisfying moment, feeling the train rocking gently back and forth and standing next to a good friend watching the sun set on the Kazakhstan Steppes.
That evening the two of us would delve deeply into the vodka and wax emotional, talking about anything and everything but for the moment we stood silent. Clouds, thin and high but with some weight to them hung in the western sky. The swirling outline of the sun stared like an impossibly big and orange eye when it passed behind a cloud.
The double pane of glass duplicated it as though we were on some distant planet with two suns. And we just stood there watching, in awe really, the glowing dusty pinks and oranges sweep from vibrancy to dilution and slowly fade. Low settlements passed, and outside of one a man sat atop his camel with the sun to his right and the train to his left and I could tell he was torn between which one to watch. It was a magical moment, the kind that creeps up on me when I travel, to numb me and make me feel wonderfully small, but alive. Vladimir could do nothing but shake his head incredulously.
When the velvet night sky edged closer to the far horizon, laying silhouettes across the land in the last moments of twilight, the Cossack and I moved back into our cabin with a sigh. I think we could have very well been exhausted.
He took my dog eared Russian‑English dictionary in hand and spent a few minutes looking up words. He marked each one with a bit of paper and when he had found all he was looking for he rechecked the order in which he would present them, mouthing each word in practice. He was clearly going to make a presentation.
When he was ready he made sure he had my complete attention and cleared his throat. He carefully, passionately pronounced four words.
"Beautiful. . . time. . . road. . . we !!!"
I smiled, tears welled, for it was then I knew he knew - this little man with big dreams, restricted by his nations politics and economics - he knew and understood that subtle rhythm of the road, that life essence of travel and the magic it brings.
Zahoor and his Falcon - Aksu, Xinxiang, China. November 1992. Photograph by Mikael Colville-Andersen.
A BIRD IN THE HAND IS WORTH A BUNDLE
By Mikael Colville-Andersen
At the back of a bus, crossing the harshest desert on earth, I met a man with unusual baggage. We were travelling the most miserable stretch of highway ever created; the long road between Urumqui and Kashgar in China’s westernmost province, Xianjiang. For three days, at fifteen hours a day, we jolted along on the edge of my senses.
The word desert is a misleading description. This is not a place of aesthetic sand dunes and palm tree oasis’. The rocky desert floor stretches to the horizon from each edge of the road. The gravel road itself seems like an minor intrusion on the landscape and you feel that desert only needs to shift slightly to reclaim the sliver of civilisation that scars it.
It was on the evening of the second day that I met Zahoor. A voice out of the dark asked, “Are you speaking English?”. It was a golden question on that lonely bus ride. We were both aliens in China and were eager for conversation, even with Zahoor’s broken English. It was a black night without a moon and we remained only voices to each other at first as we bumped along the washboard road.
I soon discovered that Zahoor was a Pakistani “beezneezman”, and his only possession was a seemingly empty sports bag on the floor between his legs. Since China is one of the few countries to issue visas to Pakistanis, thousands of men pour across the border to buy enormous amounts of goods for export back to Pakistan. Zahoor, however, wasn’t laden down with tea sets, televisions, bundles of silk or small electric ovens like most of his compatriots. He told me simply that his business was “birds”.
It was an intriguing answer. Certainly, in Hong Kong and many parts of eastern China small singing birds are prized pets kept in ornamental cages. But this was the Takla Makan desert and we were thousands of kilometres from the closest cute, yellow canary singing happily in the sun.
When I questioned him further he simply reached into his bag and pulled out a large object. In the dark I couldn’t see a thing but a set of approaching headlights slowly filled up the interior of the bus. I caught my first glimpse of Zahoor. He was a short man with a thick, well-trimmed moustache and wearing a peak cap. His small eyes were almost black and there was a nasty scar running down his jaw. Despite his warm smile in the strange light you could sense a hardened soul.
In his hand there was an object all the more amazing in the brief shock of light. It was a large bird of prey with it’s feet and wings tightly bound with cloth and string. It cocked it’s head several times before the headlights faded, trying to get it’s bearings. Zahoor shrugged a Brando shrug and placed the bird carefully back in his bag.
I sat a bit stunned in the darkness finally asking him where he got the bird and what on earth he was going to do with it. I feared the worst, speculating wildly that perhaps the feathers or beak were used in some bizarre Chinese medicine. Maybe the beak could be ground up and used to cure adolescent acne. Such things are not unlikely in that part of the world. Instead, he told me that he was going to take it to Peshawar, in northern Pakistan, where he would sell it. I suggested to him that that was surely illegal.
He answered by chuckling in the dark and I could sense he was grinning. My curiosity began working overtime and I bombarded him with questions; where did he get it, who would buy it, how can he cross the border?
Perhaps it was the boredom of that endless bus trip and the need for conversation that encouraged Zahoor go on to answer all my questions about his trade in a quiet and unassuming manner.
Capturing a falcon is, by far, the most difficult part of the big picture. It involves travelling out into the desert, into the foothills of the mighty Tian Shan range that form the border between south-western China and the former Soviet Central Asia. In that harsh and unforgiving environment you build a small, round stone hut with a hole in the roof and barely enough room to sit up straight.
You must have some fresh meat with you or, even better, a couple of live pigeons to use as bait. Secure the meat or the pigeon outside the hole in the roof with some string and carefully position a small snare around it.
There you sit and wait, sometimes for several days. Your limbs become cramped and you can’t risk going outside during daylight. At night you can walk around and stretch, but the temperature will often drop well below freezing.
During the day your eyes strain as you concentrate on the small gap of sky visible through the hole in the roof as you watch for approaching falcons. Even if and when the exciting moment arrives, and a beautiful bird of prey soars down to snatch your bait, it is still a question of luck and timing to activate the snare at the precise moment.
It seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to until you understand what kind of money is involved. I made sure that Zahoor and his broken English had the numbers straight when he told me that he could hope to earn up to $20,000 USD , but it was the most fluent thing he said all day.
When we arrived in the desert outpost of Aksu for our overnight stop, we were put in the same room since we were both foreigners. Such practice is common in Chinese hotels. Once inside our room Zahoor locked the door and unbundled the bird. It furiously flapped it’s wings and ruffled it’s feathers indignantly. Calling her a bird is like referring to the QE2 as a rowboat. She was a glorious member of the animal kingdom; Falco Peregrinus. One of the most endangered species in the world.
Her head and neck were greyish-brown, her chest a dull peppered white and her back and tail marked with broken bars of a cinnamon colour. She measured 33 cm in height and, given her immature markings, could hope to grow another 11 cm by adulthood. If she survived the journey.
Every few minutes on the bus Zahoor had checked in the bag to see if she was alive as she could die without notice from stress, suffocation or starvation.
When Zahoor held her up, perched on his fist, I noticed the eyes. They were “seeled”, an eastern falconer’s practice to render the bird temporarily and partially blind. A needle and thread are used to pierce each inner eyelid and draw them forcibly up to cover the eyes. The thread is tied in a bow on the top of the bird’s head. The European falconer’s equivalent is the leather hood.
This majestic bird, who only three days before could spot the slightest movement on the ground from a great height could now only react to shadows and sudden movements near her head. This must have been comforting to Zahoor, however, who showed me countless scars on his hands from previous beaks and talons.
We went to sleep in the cold dormitory beneath our thick Chinese duvets. It was disconcerting to share a room with such a blatant reminder of the natural world. Through the night the peregrine restlessly flapped it’s wings between fitful dozes.
I didn’t sleep well either, and although I was intrigued by the whole affair and spent the next couple of weeks looking into it further, that first night is still disturbing.
In the morning Zahoor told me that he was going off into the desert to try and catch himself another falcon. I wanted very much to come along but he politely declined my offer. With his Pakistani appearance he blended in well with indigenous population in Western China, the Uighurs. The covert falcon hunting wouldn’t be very covert with a very western-looking inquisitive journalist tagging along and sticking out like a sore thumb. I boarded the bus to continue down the hellish road, south to Kashgar.
In the days of the Silk Route between Asia and Europe Kashgar served as the central meeting point. The Kazaks, Uzbeks and all the traders from the Middle East came over the mountains from the west. Those from the Indian sub-continent came from the south. The Russians popped down from the north and the Chinese crossed the desert from the east.
Present-day borders no longer allow such a mammoth group of people to congregate, but Kashgar stills boasts the largest Sunday market in Asia, with over 100,000 people gathering each week to carry on the regions rich trading history.
Among them are the Pakistanis, and among those Pakistanis are the falcon smugglers. It is appropriate that with Kashgar’s timeless history as a trading centre, it now serves as the main centre for the illicit falcon trade.
After meeting Zahoor I was intent on finding out more about this little-known niche in the world of animal trafficking. In Kashgar I found several falcon traders and casually interviewed them about their business. They are a quiet, shifty group of people, largely loners, who keep to themselves and away from the larger groups of more boisterous Pakistanis.
It is here I learned about the extent of the trade. There are many options open to those who dabble in falcon trafficking. Depending on the size and quality of the Peregrine or Saker falcon, a price between $14.000 and $20.000 can be earned by catching the bird and travelling back to Pakistan to sell it. If you weren’t a member of the Boy Scouts and don’t fancy camping in the desert, not to worry. For between $5000 and $8000 you can buy a bird in Kashgar and smuggle over the border yourself.
I found it surprising that getting caught is no more than an inconvenience. If you are nicked on the Chinese side of the line, they fine you around $400 (prices vary according to the moods of the border guards), let the bird go free and slap you on the wrist.
If you are caught on by the Pakistani authorities, however, your safe passage depends on your negotiation techniques. One smuggler I met showed me, with a big, stupid grin, the $800 he keeps in his sock for the sole purpose of bribing the well-fed lazy customs officials in Sust, on the opposite side of the Khunjerab Pass.
The same flexible rules apply for importing alcohol or oversized loads of silk but for Pakistan, who is under intense pressure to preserve rare species like the snow leopard and the Marco polo sheep, to allow such obvious trafficking to occur is deplorable.
In any healthy market economy, there must be demand to create supply. The main factor in the equation are wealthy Arabs from the money-rich Gulf States who are avid proponents of the ancient sport of falconry. With no lack of disposable cash, they fly to Pakistan regularly to purchase new falcons for their stables, placing a high level of status on quality and quantity.
Even though, by all accounts, the birds are well-cared for and treated with respect once in the hands of their respective Arab owners, the demand is creating a serious depletion in the populations of the Peregrine and Saker falcons. I won’t question the sport but I’ll happily criticise the acquisition of the equipment. Already the mountainous regions on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have been picked clean of birds of prey.
The move northwards is a recent one. Fifteen years ago the Karakorum Highway between the Pakistan and China was completed, following the ancient Silk Road route to Kashgar. An estimated 2.000 prospective bird smugglers board crowded buses each year, to travel the treacherous highway and chase their $20.000.
Zahoor himself spends five months each year in the region, from August to September. He claims 25 successes in three years, with five attempts thwarted at the Chinese border. He has always made it past the Pakistani border control, whether caught or not. Like most of the other falcon smugglers I spoke with he didn’t mind my questions but, at one point, felt as though he should justify his work.
In the volatile and lawless Khyber Pass region, where he is from, most people are involved with heroin or arms deals. He told me that at least catching falcons didn’t hurt people. It was a Robin Hood statement from this roguish character, but I believe it was sincere.
But that doesn’t make it right. In China and Pakistan, Falco Perigrinus is listed as an endangered species. It is illegal to capture, keep or cross borders with the bird. To trade in Saker falcons a permit is required and difficult to obtain. These countries have signed an international treaty to this effect. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell those people who travel and inhabit the remote desert and mountain regions in south-western China and northern Pakistan.
Their remote location has been a blessing for them. Even the various international organisations dedicated to preservation have little or no knowledge of this specific pipeline for animal smuggling.
At over 3000 metres at the Chinese border post of Pirali, just a few ramshackle buildings on the far edge of the nation, an enormous falcon was seen to be soaring in large, slow majestic circles over the stony valley. It was a source of interest to many of the passengers as we lounged around waiting to clear customs on our way to Pakistan. It was a cold, sunny November day and the birds fantastic wingspan was clearly defined against a pale blue sky.
While I saw the bird for what she really was, a proud, regal member of the animal kingdom, I couldn’t blame the rest of the Pakistani passengers for seeing something completely different. A commodity far more valuable than the 50 Chinese tea sets in their luggage. I could see the dollar signs in their eyes as we watched the falcon. Even for me, a $20,000 US boost to my bank account would be a welcome thing and I could put it to good use. For those smugglers from Pakistan, where the average earning is under $500 per year, it would be of astronomical worth.
For a brief moment my smug, condescending western attitude towards animal conversation drifted away and I smelled the sweet scent of the smuggler’s dream of rising out of poverty and finding a better life.